Michael Jackson: Some Observations

Michael Jackson (1958-2009) passed away yesterday and I find myself in awe of the coverage devoted to the more esoteric parts of his life (e.g. hyperbaric chamber, conversations with Bubbles, dangling of a baby outside a window, his infamous trial). All of this seems to distract from his contribution to popular music of the late 20th century. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve liked his music but have always found his little sister, Janet’s music the more interesting. Prior to yesterday I haven’t bought an album since I forked out the cash for a cassette of Thriller.

I happened to be in HMV on Oxford Street where hordes of shoppers were congregating around a front-end display of his CDs and DVDs whilst his Billie Jean blasted away through the sound system. HMV had entrepreniuerally created an end of aisle display strictly on his music alone. As I’ve said I haven’t bought one of his albums for a couple decades and was caught up in the moment and bought his album the ‘#1s’ which is a compilation of his hits which went to the top of the Billboard charts, so not everything but many of the classics.

Rather than purchase a CD, I opted for this DVD as it had the videos of those covers. By no means was this an act of nostalgia, but thinking about Jackson’s contributions to pop culture, it was really these videos which influenced a generation of pop music. What would the dance moves of Justin Timberlake or Beyonce look like without a Michael Jackson? What about his synthesis of R&B which form the undercurrent sound of boy band groups like NSYNC, Backstreet Boys and Blue?


It is easy for the media to focus on lawsuits over control of assets let alone child custody, but in time these will be overshadowed by his artistic contributions. At the time MTV was a fledgling network devoted to Cyndi Lauper, Duran Duran, a younger Madonna and Culture Club. With the Thriller album’s hits of Billie Jean and Thriller, Jackson’s dance moves indelibly made their mark on our collective consciousness. These dance moves which are highlighted in almost all of his videos coupled with savvy Quincy Jones R&B infused tracks was a revolutionary fusion of musical styles for the 20th century. It would serve as a structural constant for popular music of the past 30 years even outliving its antithesis found in the grunge music of Seattle’s Nirvana in the 90s. In terms of musical importance, one could liken it to the 19th century cross-cultural synthesis which brought together antiphonal ‘hollers’ of the African-American slaves, the creation of the blues and the evolution into jazz.


Listening to this compilation, I’m struck in particular by the video to Man in the Mirror. Even though it cites many of history’s notable events it doesn’t seem dated. One of the most fitting images relate to the death of another artist, John Lennon. (I remember that date but his passing affected in particular one of my cousins who could play almost all of his and the Beatles’ tunes by memory on the piano. I’m pretty sure she could probably do the same for MJ.) As with Jackson’s passing it is his musical contributions which stay in the memory. Back to the video: although the Berlin Wall has fallen and Poland has joined the EU, there is still gender/racial/sexual inequality, conflict in the Middle East, nuclear proliferation still haunts us as does poverty in the Third World. Will it seem dated in another 20 years? I’m not sure, but thanks to digital technology Michael Jackson’s music and video will continue to exist. Perhaps his influence will even be discussed in textbooks as are the origins of the blues and jazz today.


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