Simply put, Michael Jackson’s legacy cannot be boiled down to a single album, song, or music video—no matter how hard some of us may inevitably try. Likewise, his life cannot be reduced to an individual court case, tabloid story, or television/movie appearance. He’s been the victim of too many punchlines and late-night monologues to count, but even when he was marginalized, never once would anyone dispute his status as one of the most successful recording artists in the history of all of pop music. He’s had several highs and numerous lows, but there isn’t any one event that outshines the other: Jackson’s life was a tapestry of showmanship, eccentricity, and damn fine pop songs. It is for this reason that Michael Jackson’s sudden death is still reverberating with us all: it’s hard to completely process the sheer enormity of his contributions to pop culture, both intentional and otherwise.
Part of the reason why Jackson’s passing is so difficult is because Michael Jackson wasn’t just a pop-star—he was the pop star, achieving a level of fame that was so omnipresent that it (arguably) has yet to be matched by anyone since. He arrived right on the cusp of the music video era, and instead of simply playing the game like everyone else did, he wound up blazing trails that no one thought possible, breaking not only racial barriers but also preconceived notions of what pop music sounded like (much less looked like). He knew people saw music as much as they heard it, and his peak-era videos—which featured him walking on glowing pavement, engaging in gangster knife-fights, and choreographing zombie dance routines—didn’t just become MTV staples: they became ingrained in our collective consciousness; and—like all great art—these clips were parodied, stolen from, and mimicked for decades to come.
Yet Michael Jackson was first and foremost a singer and songwriter. Though his first recordings with the Jackson 5 were remarkably addictive pieces of Motown bubblegum pop, it wasn’t until his first “grown-up” album—the 1979 disco classic Off the Wall—that Jackson began making his slow ascent from pop star to cultural phenomenon. With the help of producer Quincy Jones, Jackson had found a sound that was equal parts funk and rock, soul and pop. Though none of his songs could ever really be described as “groundbreaking”, his ambition to reach out to different genres gave him a wide-eyed eclecticism that few other artists could match. After all, who else would have thought to bring in a rock guitarist like Eddie Van Halen to play on a song called “Beat It” on what was originally thought of as just an R&B album?
Of course, Thriller wasn’t “just” an R&B album by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, Thriller was a bona fide phenomenon like no other album before or after it. Unlike most big-budget albums of the ‘80s, Thriller was more than just a collection of pop songs: it had all the makings of a blockbuster movie, ranging from its kooky characters (Vincent Price’s famed “rap” in the title track) to its marquee-name supporting players (Paul McCartney stopping by on “The Girl is Mine”), providing something romantic for the ladies (“Human Nature”, “The Lady in My Life”), something explosive for the fellas (“Billie Jean”, “Beat It”), and yes, it even had something for the kids (“Thriller”, again). Jackson wasn’t just courting pop audiences from across the soul aisle: he was making an album that everyone could come and enjoy regardless of age, gender, or background. By inviting everyone to the party, it’s no surprise that 28 million of us came (and, as the massive sales figures for Thriller‘s 25th Anniversary Edition proved, some of us are still showing up even today).
Though nothing could ever (ever) top a milestone like Thriller, Jackson at least tried with 1987’s Bad and 1991’s Dangerous, which—even with their respective flaws—are still filled with enough untouchable singles to warrant worthy place in Jackson’s echelon of classics (pop songs rarely get as feel-good perfect as “Black or White” does). Yet during the years that followed Dangerous—filled with drawn-out trials, failed comeback attempts, and his own increasingly bizarre public behavior (and the less said about 1988’s Moonwalker film, the better)—Jackson’s catalog began to grow increasingly comfortable with its place in rock history. This was further evidenced every couple of years by some young band coming in to cover an MJ classic and usually ruining it for the rest of us (see: Fall Out Boy’s humorless take on “Beat It”, Chris Cornell’s abysmal do-over of “Billie Jean”, Steel Train’s colorless version of “I Want You Back”, etc.). The only thing these cover songs wound up doing was make us yearn for the original, ultimately proving an unspoken rule in pop music that everyone already knows: a Michael Jackson song belongs to Michael Jackson and no one else.
Which leads us back to why Jackson’s passing has stricken us as much as it has. His first hit with the Jackson 5 was in 1970, and 39 years later, his songs are still being covered on American Idol. During the years between, he changed the rules of how pop music was made and marketed, challenged America to accept a black singer as a fully-bodied multimedia phenomenon, and at one fateful point in 1983, had every kid in America attempting to moonwalk across their linoleum kitchen floors in their socks. By losing Michael Jackson, we’re not just losing one of the greatest entertainers to ever live: it feels like we’re losing a part of our entire culture. Though his achievements will always stand the test of time, it’s a shame that MJ won’t be around to see how his music will effect a whole new generation.
We can do a lot of things in remembering Jackson, whether it be recounting his mind-numbingly impressive chart figures (according to this Billboard report, he scored 47 Hot 100 hits during his reign as the King of Pop, 13 of which went straight to the top of the charts) or standing in awe of the sheer spectacle of his visual achievements (like the multi-million dollar Mark Romanek-helmed clip for his Janet Jackson duet “Scream”). Yet there is no better way to remember Michael Jackson than by doing what he wanted us to do all the way back in 1970: just play one his songs. As the days, weeks, and months go by—undoubtedly to be filled with autopsy reports, unveiled skeletons from his closet, and a debate over whether his private life will ever overshadow his musical legacy—we can at least take solace in the fact that no matter what happens, “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” will still sound as funky 20 years from now as you did when you first heard it, the music video for “Thriller” will never cease to be entertaining, and Michael Jackson is—just as he’s always been—the undisputed King of Pop.
// Notes from the Road
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