I'm not going to go on and on and provide a retrospective on Jackson's life and career. (There're a hundred websites and TV programs that have been and will continue to do that over the next several days and weeks.) Instead, I'm blogging this largely for the young people out there, many of whom, I suspect, don't fully understand the impact Michael had on music and our popular culture. The same way my generation couldn't fully understand Elvis' impact, anyone under the age of 30 probably doesn't understand Michael's.
Indeed, Jackson practically invented the music video, taking it from its primitive beginnings as simple filmed live or studio performances (sometimes enhanced with cheesy special effects) to expressionistic narratives with creative cinematography and choreography. Jackson pioneered the "performer out front with backup dancers" style of video, which became the paradigm for many other artists from the eighties (Pat Benatar's "Love is a Battlefied"), nineties (Janet Jackson's "Rhythm Nation"), into the new millineum (Britney Spears' "Oops, I Did It Again"), and even today (Beyonce's "Single Ladies".) Also with regard to music videos, Jackson's "Billie Jean" (along with Prince's "1999" and Eddy Grant's "Electric Avenue") were the first videos by black artists to be played on MTV.
A gifted dancer from birth, Jackson enhanced this natural ability by adding in double and triple James Brown-like spins, as well as pops, locks and moonwalks he borrowed from 80s b-boys.
Songwriting ability, mellifluous voice, and all other talent aside, like The Beatles, there was also something undefineable about Michael Jackson. Despite his shyness, he was tremendously charismatic. Even from his earliest beginnings, when he was signed (along with his brothers) to Motown as a ten year old, Suzanne DePasse, Smokey Robinson, Berry Gordy, and others at the label agreed that the group had talent, but Michael had "it."
Jackson was long considered a prodigy, but by the time he was twenty-one, he would exceed everyone's expectations by breaking free from both his brothers and Motown and proving himself one of the best voices and creative forces in the business. EVERYONE recognized this, even his peers, the most famous names in music. During the last three decades of the 20th century, many of the top singers (Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Lionel Richie, The Winans, Stevie Wonder, Heavy D., James Ingram, Boyz II Men), producers (Quincy Jones, Bill Bottrell, Teddy Riley, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Dallas Austin, David Foster), and studio musicians (Rod Temperton, Brothers Johnson bassist Louis Johnson, Toto's Steve Lukather and Steve and Jeff Porcaro) collaborated with Michael on projects. And when Michael enlisted axemen Eddie Van Halen and Steve Stevens (Billy Idol's guitarist) to play on "Beat It" and "Dirty Diana", respectively, many fans were introduced to hard rock/metal guitar licks for the very first time.
Pop culture figures outside the music world also teamed with Michael on various projects. He shot videos with Marlon Brando, Michael Jordan, Naomi Campbell, Eddie Murphy, Martin Scorcese and John Landis; made movies with Academy Award winners Sidney Lumet, Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas; performed onstage with Diana Ross, Cher, and James Brown; and launched the careers of Siedah Garrett and Sheryl Crow (whose first big break was as a backup singer on the Bad tour.) Little sister Janet owes a debt to Michael as well. Her career was floundering (with a mediocre debut album and an even less successful sophmore effort) until the fallout from Michael's fame helped refocus attention on her and her Control album.
As I suggested in a previous blog post, it's been said that there often comes a time when a man meets his moment. For Michael, that moment was at the Motown 25 TV Special, where he reunited with his brothers onstage for the first time in eight years, and then brought the house down with a solo performance of "Billie Jean." Though the show included performances by legends like Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder and The Supremes, all anyone could talk about for the next several days was Michael. It was this performance that saw Michael's instantaneous ascension into the pantheon of not just pop music but pop culture as a whole.
It's hard to deny that Michael was an icon of the highest magnitude. He had the highest selling album of all time and was featured in his own animated TV series. He starred in his own prime time variety show and had Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire publicly marvel at his dancing ability. He was honored by President Reagan at the White House and guest voiced on The Simpsons. And, lest we forget, Michael was also one of the organizers and creative forces behind U.S.A. for Africa and co-writer of "We Are the World". Indeed, Michael contributed so much time and money to charities and humanitarian causes that the Guiness Book of World Records honored him as the "Most Charitable Pop Star of All Time."
For the last week, I've listened to the MJ tributes on various radio stations and watched the retrospectives on BET, MTV, and VH1. What sticks out to me and offers the most consolation for this loss is the stunning amount of music Michael left behind. I've had Jackson's music on vinyl, cassette, and digitally for years, yet still, I'm staggered by both the volume and quality of the music he produced with the Jackson 5, The Jacksons, and on his own. The worst tracks on Off the Wall, Thriller, Bad, and Dangerous, are measurably better than most of the cuts by many of today's most popular rock, r&b and hip-hop artists (and I'm sorry, but that's FACT not opinion...)
But through all of this, what we'll remember most about Michael Jackson is his music, his amazing voice, and all the good memories... J5... Motown... The Ed Sullivan Show... "I Want You Back"... "I'll Be There"... the giant 'fro... dancing the robot... The Jacksons... The "Thriller" video... the glove... the moonwalk... and on and on...