A month before Michael Jackson’s tenth birthday, an American named Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. He was the first to do so. It was July 20, 1969, a 40th anniversary we approach. When Armstrong achieved his feat, and the world watched, Gary, Indiana’s Jackson 5, whose first single “I Want You Back” debuted the same year, were on the verge of global superstardom.
By the time Michael Jackson was 25, he had reversed the Apollo effort by moonwalking.
Two characteristics of genius are the ability to assimilate the greatness and attributes of one’s predecessors, and the vision to become innovative to a degree that inspires emulation in turn. Michael Jackson accomplished the first by astutely combining the best of Jackie Wilson, James Brown, Delfonics’ lead singer/songwriter William “Poogie” Hart, The Five Stairsteps (who were nicknamed “The First Family of Soul” before the J-5 rocketed to success) and Diana Ross. He achieved the latter lasting effect via his impact on the careers and styles of The Sylvers, The Osmond Brothers, The DeFranco Family, DeBarge, The Jets, Madonna, Bobby Brown, New Edition, New Kids On The Block, Another Bad Creation (ABC), Tevin Campbell, Usher, Britney Spears, The Backstreet Boys, N’ Sync, Justin Timberlake, and Chris Brown.
Jackson was born when Motown was new, Ray Charles was novel, and a boy band called Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers captured audiences with a precocious, diminutive lead singer, catchy tunes, and acrobatic dance moves. He was raised in the heart of blue collar, industrial Gary, Indiana, as culturally far from Hollywood and Peter Pan as any place in America. His youth was spent in the age of the movies, television influence and theme parks of Walt Disney, the branding of The Beatles, and The Space Age defined by the first lunar landing. Born with a talent others recognized early, and bearing the omen of his father’s “Joseph” as a middle name, Michael Jackson was destiny’s child. Though reportedly shy and unassuming in one-on-one situations, his command of the stage, even as a grade school lad, was evident. His artistic maturity existed in direct contrast with his arrested social development. He may be the most famed celebrity of all time who has never been romantically linked (which is different than being married, in his case) to either man or woman. Even his friendships were with child stars- Elizabeth Taylor, Brooke Shields, Emanuel Lewis and Macualay Caulkin. Perhaps they were the only ones with whom he could identify, having spent the majority of his life on stage and surrounded by adults.
When a figure of Jackson’s stature dies, we rush to quantify their place in the artistic pantheon and the culture at large. The King of Pop’s singlehanded integration of MTV, his unifying effect on world youth, and his musical savvy are well documented. His evolution as a man concerned with his physical appearance is an enigma whose roots we may never uncover, despite reports that his brothers teased him about the bulbous nose he developed as a teen. Sibling banter does not explain straightening, bleaching, and scapeling of the degree Jackson underwent. Interestingly, fans across racial lines embraced the entertainer before those changes, as “Thriller” album sales indicate. Millions of wannabees sported Jacksonian jackets and pipestem jeans. In the mid-1980’s, entire school buses of children from all over America emptied on Washington’s National Mall to reveal students nearly identically attired in fashion tribute to the chart topper. All efforts to guess the hometowns of such students were in vain.
Today those Americans are aged 35-40, and last November 4 millions of them voted for the nation’s first brown-skinned president. Like President Obama, (who is four years Jackson’s junior) they grew up on “The Wiz”, “Off The Wall”, The Victory Tour, and “Motown at 25”. Their older siblings were raised on a steady diet of Jackson cartoons, variety show guest appearances and bedroom posters- The Jackson 5 as a unit. To these large audiences, and those outside the U.S., Michael Jackson had a forum to call attention to African hunger (the “We Are The World” song and campaign), fight for the economic compensation of his predecessors such as Little Richard, give props to James Brown, and sing of racial harmony (“Black Or White”). Regardless of his (changing) outer appearance, such senstitivies speak to an inner empathy. Jackson understood his cultural roots, his place in society, and the power of celebrity. People handle status differently, but it is notable that his commentary was more political than Michael Jordan’s or Tiger Woods. Neither Jordan and Woods’ childhoods occurred during the emergence of outspoken figures such as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. or the Muhammad Ali of the 1960’s. Jackson was old enough to remember long hot summers marked by urban unrest, and longhaired college students who challenged the status quo.
Jackson was front man (and before that, boy) for the most electrifying act in show biz history. The Jackson 5 were younger and more gymnastic than The Beatles, and there were more of them than solitary performers Elvis and James Brown. Those boys weren’t an act, they were a tornado. The secret formula to their bubble gum ascension was so covert, the songwriting team behind them were only credited as “The Corporation”. Black tweens and teens haven’t screamed that loud at concerts before or since.
Unlike today’s pop stars, Michael Jackson paid his dues performing in smoky bars and grills, high school talent shows and chitlin’ circuit theatres. His early environment was the heart of hardworking steeltown Gary. He is the last and youngest product of an entertainment tradition which featured venues such as Chicago’s legendary Regal Theatre- schooled in the show business equivalent of the Negro Leagues. Who knows what tricks of the trade he observed and absorbed from the wings of such stages. He brought the fire and professionalism from that world to the mainstream.
A generation of admirers mimicked his leg kick, shimmies, crouch grab, and gentle voice, as did standup comics. Joking aside, as much as is made of Jackson’s impact on the dance floor, he does not receive sufficient credit as a singer. As a little boy, his uncanny vocal control was showcased in numbers such as “Ben”, “I Want To Be Where You Are” and “I’ll Be There”. The bubble gum idol had soul chops. MJ was a skilled interpreter- so much so, that older entertainers dubbed him an “old soul”. How else could a chaperoned schoolboy have experienced the heartsickness evident in his singing? Michael the man was no mere pop star, he brought heart into into ballads like “Human Nature”, “Heal The World”, and “Man In The Mirror”. He was a student of the craft. His 1970’s television skit mates were the likes of Bill Cosby, Bob Hope, and Sammy Davis, Jr.- the latter two veterans of vaudeville. Many forget that little Michael’s tv repertoire included a hip impersonation of Frank Sinatra in which the boy slung a jacket rakishly over one shoulder, and wore a fedora cocked at an angle over his puffy afro.
Persons who make the greatest mark, come into the world with gifts, hone them, and share that talent with us. Those of us fortunate enough to have witnessed the entire arc of Michael Jackson’s career were blessed by his generosity.
(quote below is excerpted from TheRoot.com’s “Michael Jackson Memories” page)
“Jackson almost singlehandedly made MTV a national fixture. In the mid-1980’s, young people all over the world adopted his jacketed look and pipestem jeans. “The [King] of Pop” was innovative, seemingly sensitive, and had a keen eye for often unlikely collaborations (such as w/ Paul McCartney). He and the music video grew in tandem. He also fought for Little Richard to be paid fairly for his songwriting royalties, and was a major figure in U.S.A. For Africa (“We Are The World”), long before Madonna and Brangelina’s adoptions and Bono’s charity work.” —
Bijan C. Bayne