The one thing that lacks most in today’s world of pop music is a real, honest-to-goodness pop star. You can have all the shiny, expensive jewelry you want. Your means of transportation can far exceed a mere yacht or airplane. You can have more than a simple summer home in addition to your regular house. You can have the most beautiful, exotic women, in any number, one could ever imagine. Money could never be an issue again. Your face could be everywhere from television, to billboards, to posters, to action figures, to lunchboxes, to computer wallpaper. You could be escorted in and out of each place you go by an entourage of no less than 20. You could embody all of these things to their fullest. You can even begin to believe you are an actual real, honest-to-goodness pop star. Really, you could. But you’d be wrong.
Why, you ask? You wouldn’t be a real honest-to-goodness pop star because although you may have every little thing money could buy, you wouldn’t radiate like the glowing nuclear toxic waste you usually see in cartoons. You wouldn’t understand how to become bigger than life. More than likely, you’d want to be more personable. You’d do things like go on sketch comedy shows to make fun of yourself, or put out silly, joke-filled music. You’d concentrate more on your movie career two albums in. In interviews, you’d tell everyone how much you just want to be a simple man living a simple life. Pictures of you would surface eating at Subway with your starlet girlfriend. You’d go out in Hollywood simply to be seen, and when you were photographed—drunk beyond belief—at 3 a.m., you would issue a statement on your blog complaining about the perils of stardom and how you should be able to have a night out with friends peacefully. You’d play into every single stereotype the current generation has let morph into a regularity. You would embody today’s grotesquely idiotic culture that has become both the norm and accepted as such far too easily. You wouldn’t be a real, honest-to-goodness pop star. Today’s world wouldn’t allow it.
Michael Jackson was a real, honest-to-goodness pop star. Unfortunately, it’s taken until now, after his passing, to fully realize how important he was to both pop culture and pop music. It had no more to do with his astronomical record sales than it did with his aura, an aura the man somehow effortlessly earned over his four-plus decades in the music industry. He was the very last musical artist that will ever utterly rule the world. And not just the world of music. Michael Jackson ruled the world of pop and the many, many dimensions its tentacles reach out to.
What made him so refreshing was that he embodied everything a pop star should be. He drove women to tears much like Elvis—a man he made no secret idolizing. He grabbed children’s attention with his legendary sense of hysteria in much the same way the Beatles did when they first came to America. And he had earned the musical credibility by having a hand in writing most of his music, unlike any wannabe pop star today. He carried a lit torch during a time when music still mattered within the pop conscious.
One would be hard-pressed to find an individual alive today that didn’t have some tie to his music, regardless of personal opinion. His influence spanned throughout three generations. The current generation knows him as an icon that came only a mere few years before its time, knowing much about “Invincible”, but little about “Billie Jean”. The current generation’s parents know him strictly as a performer who could never be matched, knowing little about “Invincible”, but much about “Billie Jean”. And the current generation’s grandparents know him for the brilliant work he produced with the Jackson 5, knowing next to nothing about “Invincible”, remembering “Billie Jean”, and having fond memories of “I Want You Back”. Jackson’s longevity will forever be unparalleled.
But that’s only one reason why he will go down as the last honest-to-goodness pop star. The often-subjective idea of influence is another. Michael is single-handedly responsible for the version of pop music you hear on Top 40 radio today, and, more than likely, will continue to hear on your favorite “Today’s Hits” station for a long, long time. That version of today’s pop music is all centered around rhythm & blues, a genre of music Jackson revolutionized by the minute, making it acceptable to all races and colors, and all but making it imperative to promise a finger-snapping, toe-tapping backdrop for each 3-and-a-half minute pop gem that could be heard today. From Usher, to Ne-Yo, to Beyonce, to any 1980s-era one-hit wonder, to the Backstreet Boys, to Justin Timberlake and NSYNC, to Britney, to Madonna, to almost any radio-accepted pop “rock” song, we can all thank Jackson for making sure radio continues to showcase a groove.
One highly—albeit irresponsibly—overlooked element of pop stardom is the mere notion of vanity. Herein lies probably the most ignored characteristic of Jackson’s greatness. His delivery of each performance was soaking wet with confidence, and his demeanor away from the stage, while admittedly strange, went beyond the cliché “bigger than life.” Always surrounded by a small army’s worth of handlers, Jackson’s lack of accessibility only added to the unequivocal invisible stigma that surrounded his being for half a century. Over-the-top? He defined over-the-top. Creating a child’s wonderland at his house and dubbing it “Neverland” is an act—again, ignoring the criticism that surrounded such a thing—that will forever be immortalized as one of the most out-of-this-world occurrences a pop star could ever imagine.
Even when it became the cause of an ungodly amount of scrutiny, Michael Jackson never lost his legend. Let’s be honest. The line on the man has always been the following: “Yeah, he might be messed up, and yeah, I probably don’t really care to hear about what he may or may not have done throughout his personal life, but man, that dude can perform.” Nobody within the last two decades has even come close to mirroring such a notion. Britney Spears was clearly unable to fully retain her performing/record-selling reputation once her wheels began to fall off. Madonna, while having been a lightning-rod for controversy throughout her better years, fails to sell half as many records as she once did. And once the Backstreet Boys’ dirty addiction-laden secret seeped its way out of the closet, all five individuals in the one-time biggest act in the world collapsed harder and faster than anyone else in recent memory.
We lost so much more than another legend June 25. We lost the final man to give us a glimpse into how the world of pop music should be: Unimaginable record sales, worshipful attention, unthinkable live performances, and an intangible, word-less radiance that will never be fully described. Sure, we all know that the world will never be the same without such a man as Michael Jackson, and yes, one could argue that his presence on this earth made us all feel a little better about the current state of pop stardom. But more importantly than anything—and, for that matter, unjustly ignored—is the fact that Michael Jackson will forever be the last real, honest-to-goodness pop star this world will ever see. No one will ever be able to match his greatness, because his greatness will never be capable of full explanation.
Michael Jackson’s death not only marked the end of an era, it marked the end of pop music as we knew it.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.
// Notes from the Road
"Saul Williams played a free, powerful Summerstage show ahead of his appearance at Afropunk this weekend.READ the article