Today would have been Michael Jackson’s 55th birthday. Tragically, of course, he didn’t live long enough to see it — he died four years ago of a heart attack catalysed by propofol and benzodiazepine intoxication, and the wranglings over his death and legacy continue to this day. But for all that Jackson’s life was a strange and often sad one, he deserves to be remembered first and foremost as one of the most spectacular musical talents who’s ever lived, an endlessly gifted singer, dancer and songwriter. So to remember him today, here’s a retrospective of the various ways in which he changed both music and the music industry. RIP.
Breaking down racial barriers
There was so much attention focused on Jackson’s mysterious whitening over the years that it was easy to forget what he was: a black man ascending to unprecedented heights in the world of entertainment. The Jackson 5’s career was groundbreaking enough — as Duke professor Mark Anthony Neal observed after Jackson’s death, “You basically had five working-class black boys with Afros and bell bottoms, and they really didn’t have to trade any of that stuff in order to become mainstream stars.” And then, of course, Jackson’s own solo career placed him firmly at the apex of the pop pyramid, paving the way for the many African-American stars who came after him.
It’s also easy to forget how polarized the world of pop music used to be — there were rock stars and popstars, and never the twain should meet. Jackson’s work helped break down these barriers too — whether it was collaborating with Eddie Van Halen on “Beat It” or Paul McCartney on “The Girl Is Mine,” the King of Pop was always happy to move beyond pop’s confines.
The long-form music video
Jackson was one of the first to really embrace the possibilities of the music video as an artform in its own right. His groundbreaking clip for “Thriller” remains his classic statement, but there were plenty of others — “Bad,” “Black and White,” “Remember the Time” — where he took the music video to places it had never been before, and has rarely been since.
No, Jackson didn’t invent this, but it’ll be forever identified with him (and, in particular, with his performance at the Motown 25th anniversary spectacular in 1983, above.) Anyone of a certain age can remember pretty much everyone at school trying this out in the playground, trying to work out how in god’s name Jackson could glide like that.
And really, no-one danced like MJ. He elevated dance to an artform of its own, with his dance spots as compelling as any guitar solo and drum workout. You can trace the influence of his choreography on everything from hip hop to , from “” to “Single Ladies.”
In 1979, at 21 years of age, Jackson penned himself a manifesto. The document — which came to light earlier this year — was a fascinating insight into what the young MJ wanted to achieve: “I will study and look back on the whole world of entertainment and perfect it, take it steps further from where the greats left off. I should be a new, incredible actor/singer/dancer that will shock the world. I will do no interviews. I will be magic. I will be a perfectionist, a researcher, a trainer, a masterer [sic]. I will be better than every great actor roped into one.” And y’know what? He was. Jackson elevated live performance to a whole new level,, creating the idea of the pop tour as multimedia spectacular.
In this age of cynicism and charity overload, we forget that charity singles were once a novel concept, and a remarkably successful one. And for all that it was kinda mawkish, “We Are the World,” which Jackson co-wrote with Lionel Ritchie, sold a shitload of copies — 20 million worldwide, raising some $63m for humanitarian aid in Africa. Along with “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, it was the most successful from the brief golden age of songs for charity.
The hat. The glove. The jacket. Forget the sad, frail, masked figure of later years — in his prime, Jackson was a genuinely innovative fashion icon.
Jackson’s partnership with Pepsi will always be remembered for the horrible accident during the filming of a 1984 commercial that left the singer with third-degree burns on his scalp and a burgeoning painkiller addiction. (Eerily, that fateful day of filming came exactly halfway through Jackson’s life.) But the lasting legacy of his partnership with the soft-drink manufacturer was the proof that a musician could command large sums of money as a spokesman and endorser. It paved the way for a lot of musicians to make lots and lots of money through endorsement deals, partnerships, etc.
Perhaps Jackson’s most mixed and enduring legacy, though, is his status as one of the most famous people who’s ever lived. He lived his entire life in the public eye, reaching stratospheric levels of fame and commercial success, and also existing as one of the most polarizing and controversial figures of our time. Along with Princess Diana, he’s an enduring avatar of an era when society’s obsession with celebrity reached unprecedented levels.