If you’re a voracious consumer of music – and let’s face it, if you’re reading this site there’s no question about it – you’ve probably been excited when you hear about plans between two favorite artists to collaborate in the studio. Of course, there’s always a chance that the results are disappointing, particularly when the artists are extremely popular, legendary or both, but there’s nothing quite like that spark of excitement when the news of collaboration breaks.
To that end, it’s time for a new series on Popblerd, one that delves into the vast history of studio collaborations and assesses both the joyous highs and the embarrassing lows. As most pairs of artists rarely leave each others’ sides without recording at least two tracks (all the better to spread sales across whatever albums they’re peddling at the time), it’s also a perfect opportunity to get some good old-fashioned songfighting in the mix, too. Without further ado, it’s time to…Duet or Don’t!
There’s probably little surprise that this series is going to start out by highlighting the work of one Michael Joseph Jackson. (Come on, he’s the patron saint of this site, and there’s something about that name.) But rather than delve into the most obvious of duet territories – his collaboration with Paul McCartney, which yielded the sappy “The Girl is Mine” (Thriller‘s worst song) and the underrated “Say Say Say” (Pipes of Peace‘s best song) – we’re going to go with another artist who the King of Pop has a rich history with, but only a handful of true collaborations. That’s right, we’re talking about Motown’s other 12-year-old genius, Stevie Wonder.
The 1980s were good to both music men. Michael had ascended to the highest heights of pop stardom, from Triumph in 1981 to Thriller a year later. With the biggest-selling album of all time and more Grammys in 1984 than anyone had ever won in a single night, Jackson could do no wrong. If you were related to him, you were guaranteed a hit. If you were lucky enough to get him in a studio to sing the only part of your song anyone’s ever going to remember, you had a hit. Though 1985 was a comparatively quiet year for the King of Pop – he only co-wrote and performed on USA for Africa’s incredibly dumb but incredibly successful “We Are the World” – the world was still salivating for new material, leading to a fever of sorts by the time Bad hit shelves in 1987.
Bad, in retrospect, is the most obvious of hit albums, as if producer Quincy Jones was trying to create the Six Million Dollar Man of pop/R&B. Five of its 11 tracks hit the top of the Billboard charts, another two entered the Top 20 and another two tracks were released as singles outside of America. When you count the incredibly rare promotional singles issued for “Speed Demon” in 1989, only one song wasn’t spun from Bad with hopes of pop success: “Just Good Friends,” a duet with Wonder.
The Michael-Stevie connection was of course nothing new: Stevie had The Jackson 5 contribute some catchy “doo-doo-wop”s on “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” and co-wrote one of Off the Wall‘s catchiest deep cuts, “I Can’t Help It.” (As fans would find out after Jackson’s death in 2009, Wonder had produced several tracks for The J5, including the gorgeous “Buttercup,” released on Motown’s I Want You Back! Unreleased Masters.) And Wonder was one of the only members of USA for Africa that didn’t make you want to defenestrate yourself when that chorus of “We Are the World” came up. But 1987 saw the pair’s first and only solo credits together: “Just Good Friends,” and “Get It,” released on Wonder’s Characters album months after the release of Bad.
In retrospect, it’s not hard to understand why Epic never hinted at any hit potential from “Just Good Friends”: it’s shockingly soulless for a song by two R&B legends. There’s a number of reasons why: first, the song wasn’t penned by either singer, but rather Terry Britten and Graham Lyle (who penned Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do with It”). For another, Stevie is phoning it the hell in. Those opening “na-na-na”s and occasional growls barely even sound like the Wonder we all know and love, and as fun as the pair sound like they’re having – Michael’s “woo”s and “hee”s are particularly on point – it’s a little forced. And I don’t care how good a session player Greg Phillinganes is: the lack of clavinet under Stevie’s fingertips is a tragedy.
“Get It” fared far better on almost every level. Motown actually released this one as a single, and even though it was left in the dust by Bad‘s hits – peaking at No. 80 on the Billboard charts (while reaching No. 4 on the R&B charts) – that’s not abysmal considering the relative flop status of the record, which, along with all three of its singles, peaked outside the Top 10. And “Get It” has the benefit of not only being a co-written venture between both artists, but one where they genuinely sound like they’re having fun. Michael, in particular, is in top form, at that peak where he was using, not abusing, that gritty edge in his voice that made Bad such a surprising listen. And Wonder’s busy polyrhythmic groove has that sort of slight-but-still-fun vibe that recalls “Go Home” from 1985’s In Square Circle.
It’s strange, in a way. Two legends of pop get together and create a dark spot on an otherwise landmark pop record as well as a bright moment on a largely by-the-numbers effort. Neither album would have benefitted had the tracks switched, but the muse of collaboration works in mysterious ways – as you’ll certainly see, on the next installment of Duet or Don’t!
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