A Thriller in His Own Right: MJ and the Desegregation of Popular Music and Culture

Before the international frenzy that Barack Obama commanded following his historic presidential campaign and win, Michael Jackson was the global face of black exceptionalism and achievement. His death at the age of 50 on June 25, 2009, almost succeeded in crashing the Internet and suspended social media mechanisms such as Twitter. In excess of 1.6 million people logged into a random lottery system in hopes to garner one of the 20,000 tickets needed to gain access into Jackson’s memorial service this past Tuesday. His face has graced the cover of virtually every major (and minor) international periodical, newspaper, and news program since his untimely death. Much has been written and reported about Michael Jackson from his impact on an impressively diverse and large demographic to his transformation from a beautiful, cherubic child to a grotesqueness unknown or unseen before him to his massive debts and legal troubles stemming from allegations of pedophilia. As a child of the ’80s, Michael Jackson was the model for many of my own personal interpretations of Thriller, but for me it’s his role as the seminal figure in the integration of African American musicality into the global pop culture stratosphere that bears the seismic weight of his significance.

It is impossible to be an even casual consumer of popular music today and not bear witness to the modeling, remixing, modification and even plagiarism of Michael Jackson’s dance moves, innovative music videos, and sense of style and reinvention. It’s difficult to imagine what the cultural productions of artists such as Usher, Justin Timberlake, Chris Brown, Beyonce, and a score of others would look like had Michael Jackson never existed. Discovered by Motown’s Barry Gordy and mentored by Quincy Jones, Michael’s brilliance was grounded through the tutelage of these two musical heavyweights. Drawing upon a rich history of African American music and performance, Michael took incredible stock in and studied the oeuvre of musicians such as Diana Ross, James Brown, the Nicholas Brothers, Jackie Wilson, Aretha Franklin, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Dionne Warwick and, as true geniuses do, re-invented himself amidst this tradition, electrifying the world with his catalog of rhythmic adroitness and musical theatrics.

But before the advent of Michael Jackson, pop music was a largely segregated art form. Prior to Jackson, mainstream television music channels, namely MTV, did not air videos by Black artists. Upon the massive success of Thriller, Jackson was catapulted into the first major crossover global pop star, defying the barriers that race presented for so many artists before him. The sheer demand for Jackson was so great that MTV had no choice but to showcase Thriller and the rest is history. Never before had an artist touched every race, age, class, sexual orientation, and nationality in the way that Jackson did. Moreover, Jackson played a transformative role in shaping ideas of African American music and performance to a global audience in a way never before achieved by any other artist. Jackson turned the world on its head, single-handedly.

It is not lost on me that this year, America welcomed the inauguration of Barack Obama and said farewell to its native son Michael Jackson; in the span of six months, we have born witness to the birth and death of two black superstars that have shaped the global idea of blackness — specifically, black masculinity, black vocality and black expression. Both men have destabilized popular notions of black masculinity, in favor of a definition, which takes great stock in empathy, humanism, service, and a strong work ethic. With the death of Michael, the world is losing a pioneer and cultural icon. Though Michael was not without his controversy and his oftentimes tragic life story, his influence as the first musician to integrate the waves of popular music is nothing to take lightly. Sure, Michael was steeped in controversy and his life story bore a number of tragic elements but no other pop star has brought together such a diverse palate of humanity through musical performance. Is there another human being alive whose death would carry the same weight as Michaels? Oprah? Barack? Stevie? I’m not sure. But what I do know is that his passing has caused me to undergo a period of reflection of Michael the musician, Michael the man and Michael the cultural icon. Michael was such an incredibly complicated and simultaneously deeply troubled and empathic human being and his meteoric rise and superstar status has taught me more about stardom, influence, and humanity than any other pop culture icon. He has definitely influenced my development as a consumer and cultural critic of popular culture. Perhaps, now he can rest and find peace he so desperately sought during his lifetime. This is my wish for Michael. R.I.P.

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