Michael Jackson: A Life in Retrospective

Over a year since his death, Michael Jackson continues to be the most successful performer on the planet.  With his blockbuster concert film ‘This Is It’ achieving record DVD sales and a new album scheduled for November, Jackson mania doesn’t look to die down anytime soon.

Soundtrack cover to 'This Is It', the blockbuster concert film released by Jackson in 2009

Consequently, Jackson’s success begs the question: How could one man so thoroughly command the attention of the entire world? What sets him apart from the Lady Gagas and Justin Timberlakes of the pop world?

Like most celebrities, Jackson’s life began in a considerably more down to earth fashion than that of his later years.More so than any entertainer in recent history, Michael Jackson well and truly seared his way into the public consciousness. For decades, his music broke down cultural and musical barriers all over the world, inspiring an entire generation of artists and performers. Despite his eccentricities, The King of Pop clearly left behind a musical legacy the likes of which may never be equalled again.

Born in 1958 to a middle-class black family in Gary, Indiana, Jackson was hardly raised with a silver spoon in his mouth, and was initially subjected to a difficult upbringing along with his five brothers.

Jackson (centre) with his brothers

Even as a young boy though, Jackson displayed extraordinary talent as a singer and performer, and by the age of five was the lead singer of the Jackson 5, an R&B band consisting of him and his four brothers. Managed by their father Joe Jackson, the group quickly became one of the top selling pop acts of the 1970’s, largely due to the tremendous charisma and star power of their teenage front man.

However, Jackson’s true breakthrough was to come as a young adult with the release of his 1982 solo album, ‘Thriller’.

Upon its release, the album instantly took the world by storm, smashing sales records and becoming the biggest selling album in music history. Produced by Quincy Jones and featuring diverse incursions into funk, hard rock, pop, and R&B, the album instantly appealed to audiences of all ages and races, and sold over 20 million copies in America alone by the end of 1984.

Jackson at the 1984 Grammy awards

The album was also the first in history to produce seven Top 10 Billboard hits, the most notable of which were the #1 hits ‘Billie Jean’ and ‘Beat It’; both songs featured elaborate music videos and gained massive levels of airplay on the newly established music video network MTV.

Music journalist Peter Travers summed it up best in a 1984 article for music magazine Rolling Stone: ‘In the world of music, there’s Michael Jackson and then there’s everyone else.’

Following the mammoth success of ‘Thriller’, Jackson permanently parted ways with his brothers, and would go on to become one of the most successful recording artists in history. Subsequent albums ‘Bad’ (1987), ‘Dangerous’ (1991), ‘History’ (1995) and ‘Invincible’ (2001) were also massive commercial successes; collectively, they have sold over 90 million copies worldwide.

Sadly, Jackson’s career was cut short in June 2009, when the singer was unexpectedly found dead in his L.A. mansion as a result of a drug overdose. Immediately, his sudden passing triggered an outpouring of grief from fans all over the world, dominating headlines in every country like no other event before or since.

Jackson at a 2009 press conference announcing his 'This Is It' concerts

Perhaps the largest example of this was Jackson’s memorial service at the Staples Centre in Los Angeles, which was watched by over 2.5 billion viewers worldwide, making it the most viewed live television broadcast in history.

In addition, a blockbuster film entitled ‘This Is It’ was also released to cinemas worldwide in October, consisting of rehearsal footage from the planned concert series of the same name and intimate behind-the-scenes interviews with Jackson and his backstage crew. A critical and commercial success, the film has currently grossed over $200 million worldwide, easily making it the highest-grossing concert film of all time.

So, now that a year has passed after his death, what makes Jackson’s legacy so enduringly popular? What magical qualities contributed to the extraordinary hype still surrounding him today?

Although the number of factors are too numerous to count, several key attributes of Jackson’s legacy immediately come to mind.

Jackson performing during his 1987 'Bad' tour

Firstly, his music undeniably broke down racial barriers, both in America and overseas. Prior to Jackson’s reign of the pop world, black artists and white artists almost played exclusively to their own racial groups and in their own genres.

Jackson however was able to skilfully blend both traditional African-American R&B and white rock music in his work, allowing him to become the first black artist to gain exposure on MTV in 1984. As a result of his success, many other African-American acts were also able to gain widespread popularity during the 80’s, including Prince, Lionel Richie, and Whitney Houston.

Without Jackson’s influence during this period, pop music would ultimately not be the racially diverse industry that it is today.

In addition, Michael Jackson’s prowess in music videos and performances also set new standards in music.

Famed for the ‘short films’ which accompanied his singles, Jackson would ensure that each of his music videos would have the spectacle of a Hollywood blockbuster, featuring full storylines, grandiose special effects,  and elaborately choreographed dance sequences.

As a result, both Jackson’s music videos and MTV rose to wide popularity in the 80’s and 90’s, permanently establishing the music video as a key component of the music industry.

Logo for the 'Heal the World Foundation', a charity organisation established by Jackson

Finally, Jackson’s work as a humanitarian also inspired fellow musicians to campaign for social issues and causes. Arguably the first musician to aggressively promote humanitarian issues, Jackson’s actions would pave the way for many other musicians involved in social causes such as U2, Bob Geldof, and Tracy Chapman.

Additionally, Jackson also founded a charity organisation known as the ‘Heal the World Foundation’ which lasted from 1992 to 2001, whose activities included transporting supplies to war-torn Sarajevo and paying for organ transplants to children in developing countries.Beginning with the single ‘Man in the Mirror’ in 1987, each of Jackson’s albums would include songs addressing social issues such as environmental conservation and poverty, seen in hits such as ‘Earth Song’ and ‘Heal the World’.

Regardless of the insecurities he faced in his personal life, Jackson’s place in history will always be secured through the vast and irreplaceable contribution he has left to the realm of music.

Even the tragic cloud of his untimely death may have a silver lining, as his ultimate dream of never growing up and experiencing the coming of old age has now become a bittersweet reality.

Instead, he has been immortalised forever, chiselled into the annals of history as the most compelling and influential performer of our time.

Long live the King of Pop.

1 Comment for “Michael Jackson: A Life in Retrospective”

  1. His complex personality, “bittersweet”, if you could analyze in depth, is also fascinating.

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