I can’t front like Rebbie Jackson’s “Centipede” is a great song, or even a good one. It’s more like the kind of track you can deem a “jam” without any positive or negative qualification. Written and produced by Michael Jackson in the post-Thriller early ’80s, “Centipede” hit the streets at a time when almost anything Michael touched turned either platinum (“We Are the World,” with help from a few friends) or became a cult classic (Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me”). After all, it was Michael and Pepsi who made us Alfonso Ribeiro fans long before The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The man was magic. So it didn’t seem unbelievable for him to create a music career out of thin air.
Oldest Jackson child Rebbie is probably most famous for not being famous at all. By the time of the Centipede LP, her 1984 debut, all six brothers had been members of the Jackson 5, and little sisters LaToya and Janet had released a combined three albums with one more due later that year for each. I remember being excited about “Centipede” because of its association with Michael, but not as excited after repeated listening. It’s catchy, no doubt, with its stutter-synth pop and infectious chorus—which includes Michael on backing vocals—but none of the Jackson girls are standout vocalists, and Rebbie is no exception. Weather Girls Martha Wash and Izora Armstead sing background, with Wash, in particular, blowing hard on the song’s outro. Vocal limitations notwithstanding, “Centipede” would be certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America in 1992.
In Michael’s words, for reasons probably unbeknownst to anyone but him, the single was crafted “in dedication to my mannequin friends.” But perhaps he really could have given life to the inanimate, just as he brought his sister to prominence from her relatively light stage and session work in the late ’70s. Rebbie wasn’t a star, as her later albums would show, but she was proof of her brother’s wizardry. It wasn’t quite water into wine, however—just another taste of the fruits of Jackson success.