Michael Jackson: Legend

June 25, 2009

I’m going to get the basics out of the way first.

  1. I am not a Michael Jackson fan. Not in the slightest.
  2. At the same time, I don’t dislike his music. It just isn’t my thing.
  3. If you’re looking for jokes about the late Mr. Jackson, this is not the place. Not tonight.

Joking about Michael Jackson is easy. It’s easy tonight, mere hours after his death, and it has been easy since his early-80s heyday. Even then, we knew there was something different about Michael; his voice, his new nose, his odd behaviour. But his fans didn’t mind. Even later, when his troubles grew stranger and more public, and his behaviour descended into what might have been madness, they stuck by him.

I admire them for that. And I know a lot of them love Michael for one reason only: the music. Looking back over his catalog tonight — it’s difficult, because I have discovered that among the 30,000 or so songs I have on CD, tape, LP and MP3, there isn’t a single Michael Jackson — I have to admit that he made some startling, strong music during his peak years (Off The Wall, Thriller and Bad).

  • Personal admission of involvement: My brother Kip won’t likely admit it now, but back in his breakdancing days, he loved Thriller. He carried the actual vinyl LP around with him for months until a January day when it froze and broke, at which point we had to rush out and get him a replacement right away. He was 11. Later, I dated a girl in high school who was fixated on Michael to the point that she almost had me convinced to get my hair styled like his. Almost. Wherever she is, I know she’s crying tonight.

What has faded in all the years since Michael was on the charts is the knowledge of his real impact on popular music. A lot of you might have forgotten this, but in the early 1980s, there was still a very powerful colour divide in pop music. White artists were marketed to white audiences, and black artists to black audiences. This is not to say fans listened only to the music of their race; many of us listened to whatever the hell we wanted. But the record labels and radio stations stuck to their pre-ordained colour-divided playlists.

As radio started to change, though, one music giant stayed the course: MTV. The pioneering American music video network played only rock and pop music, by white artists. That was their demographic. Until Michael Jackson came along.

Like Elvis Presley a generation before him, Michael smashed across the demographically-divided music charts. His songs were still anchored in the funky Motown sound that had made the Jackson 5 such a hit, but he experimented, bringing in rock guitars (Beat It) and dueting with unexpected friends (The Girl Is Mine, Say Say Say). And that changed music forever

His music was pop. It defined pop in the 80s. Like it or not, there’s a reason Thriller is the biggest-selling album of all time. Track for track, it’s a powerful collection of eclectic, diverse, yet unified pop songs.

  • Personal admission of involvement II: I wasn’t going to mention this, but when I was 14, in 1982, a girl asked me to a school dance, and I had no idea how to dance. So I waited up until past midnight to tape the full-length Thriller video off some late-night show (on a Beta machine, no less) and spent a week studying and copying Michael’s moves. I got to the dance and … yeah, it didn’t go over well.

You may question Michael’s current musical relevance. You know what? He had none. He was about to launch some kind of comeback tour in England, but that was an iffy proposition at best. He would have sold out stadiums in a flash, but so do Elton John, Aerosmith and The Police. Hell, I expect No Doubt to sell out this summer. Does this make them musically relevant in the 21st century? Nope. It makes them rich. And it keeps them famous. But nobody’s buying the latest Police CD, if there even is one.

Michael Jackson wasn’t relevant any more. He wasn’t even important. He was a strange and damaged man with a lifetime of problems, most of which he caused himself. Again, much like Elvis. Time has been good to Elvis Presley; we remember the slim young dynamo who changed the world, not the bloated egomaniac, hooked on drugs. We remember the music. Just as we’ll remember Michael’s.

Time will be good to Michael Jackson, too.



  1. You said it better than I ever could.

    Time has already been kind to Michael Jackson. I (and I can vouch for the fact that some people of my generation hold the same view as me) see him as that young man who made pop music filled with that energy you get so rarely in the genre. He was a legend, and will be remembered as such.

  2. Nicely said Kennedy.

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