My day was off to a better than normal start. I had finished all of my work earlier than usual and got home well before I typically do. It was just past 1:00 p.m. and I decided to watch a movie at home. I wanted to clear my mind and remove myself from the day’s news cycle so I didn’t view any news channel even for a second. Two hours later, I finished the film and decided to reconnect with what was making headlines at that moment. I switched the channel and my jaw dropped. In complete disbelief, I sat in front of my computer and looked for more information. In the process, I had the following conversation with my friend Katie Riese on Google Talk, it captured my raw reaction in a way I would have never expected.
Katie: sad day for shawn?
me: You have no idea
I just found out two minutes
me: I was watching a movie
and just turned on the TV
I am in total shock
me: wow… still cannot believe this
[me:] I literally said “Oh My God” for the past 5 minutes
me: […] CNN now playing my favorite MJ song of all time
It is incredible that of all the days I chose not to sit in front of the TV watching cable news for hours, while reading stories on the internet and staying connected with social networks, I ended up isolating myself for the first two hours of one of the biggest stories of the year. In the twelve months since then, I have had plenty of time to reflect on the death of Michael Jackson. There is a lot to say and a lot more to celebrate but my initial thoughts on the night of June 25, 2009 remain the same one year later.
Michael & Me
It seems like I was destined to become a fan of Michael’s because he was one of the first western artists my dad listened to himself. He came to the U.S. in the late1970s as MJ and Off the Wall were gaining popularity globally, including in India. When my dad went home in the early 1980s, he saw the country had caught on to the music he had picked up in the States. The King of Pop was the first artist I ever remember listening to and like so many young boys, became a fan in no time. I would play his tapes and CDs while dancing around the house all day long. We didn’t have MTV but our friends would tape Michael’s music videos and specials just for me. I would watch them just inches from the TV over and over again trying to imitate his moves. All my life I have enjoyed MJ’s music and work, when he was popular and when he was not. Michael was my first celebrity idol and he will likely be my last.
Master of Music
On the surface, The King of Pop’s accomplishments as a singer can be recognized simply by the records he has set and the numerous awards he has won over the years. It’s estimated that Michael sold 750 million albums, behind only Elvis and The Beatles. Then there are the multiple albums that went to #1 and were certified platinum. MJ has taken the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 on 13 different occasions, not including his work with other artists. In terms of awards, there are too many to list but a few deserve one more mention. Michael remains the only individual artist to win eight Grammys in one year. He holds the record for most American Music Awards won by anyone with a total of 23, including the “Artist of the Century” award. Those are just two stats out of many. MJ’s most significant single accomplishment comes from his greatest work, Thriller. Some estimate the album has sold upwards of 100 million copies worldwide, making it the biggest selling album of all time.
This record will likely never be beaten in today’s world of MP3s and the ability to buy individual songs from an album.
Beyond accomplishments, it is worth celebrating Michael’s music for more than just his commercial success. His songbook and catalog include incredible works that often rise above the classic sound and style of pop music. Most artists try to reinvent themselves and MJ was no exception. His career spans more than five decades and as trends came and went he stayed on top of what was in style. The King of Pop’s albums in the ’70s conquered disco with Off The Wall, widely regarded as one of the best of that genre. The pinnacle of his career came in the ’80s with two albums that embraced rock while having a universal pop sound. Still strong in the ’90s, Michael worked hip-hop and modern R&B styling into his songs and maintained it into his final studio album released in 2001, Invincible.
Technically, MJ’s songs stood above most of what pop music produces as well these days. He often wrote about serious and socially conscious topics in his songs, especially his later work. He asked everyone to self-reflect in “Man in the Mirror” (written by Siedah Garrett) and in “Earth Song,” demanded that we care more for the planet. Michael did limit the use of profanity in his music and often chose love instead of sex and condemning violence rather than condoning it. In fact he often talked about the “fight” in his songs but instead of using fists, he used the “force” to answer that call. MJ’s songs, both singles and lesser-known tracks were also much longer than your average pop song. He wasn’t afraid to make some of his biggest hits run six minutes. Many of his songs had a complexity to them, made up of a mix of unique sound effects, breaks, and harmonies. A lot of them started as melodies in his head, then became demos and ultimately were the basis for entire songs, like “Beat It” for example. Whether it was incorporating a gospel choir, rock chords, or words from African languages, the King of Pop gave each song substance. However, he could carry a song all by himself as well. Some of his best vocal performances are songs like “Gone Too Soon,” where he sings the entire track without any backup. Most important of all, every song had a great beat. It didn’t matter what decade and what genre he was in, Michael always wanted to rock with you and make you dance.
Moonwalker and Much More
Some artists are singers who dance, while others are dancers who sing; MJ was the rare breed who perfectly balanced both. He deserves to be in the conversation of the greatest dancers who ever lived. Michael will be most remembered in this skill set for the moonwalk. Today it is one of the first techniques students of modern dance learn in class. His moves, however, extend beyond one popular step.
MJ told stories with his choreography and not only did he perform in this arena, he created. The King of Pop’s routines connected with audiences and became timeless. Besides the moonwalk and “Billie Jean,” there is the gang fight from “Beat It,” the zombie dance from “Thriller,” or even the forward lean in “Smooth Criminal.” His tours evolved and the look of different numbers did as well but the choreography, including the routines mentioned above, remained virtually the same.
Dancers who grew up learning his steps on TV would go on to perform those same moves on tour with Michael years later. He channeled his music and the story he was telling into movement and once he came up with a narrative, it almost never needed adjustment.
While “Thriller” is considered the birth of the modern music video, Michael’s other videos also helped to get the medium to where it is today. MJ has done every type of concept in the book. In the early days, it was just him for the entire clip with bright lights or a flashy background, like “Rock With You” and “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.” Then there are the concert videos (“Dirty Diana”), where Michael is with a band and performing for a live audience. He has used the storyteller format as well, creating several characters who face the subject of a particular song. MJ called upon many friends for celebrity cameos (“Liberian Girl”) and memorialized lives lost (“Gone Too Soon”), both of which barely feature The King of Pop himself at all. Then there are the visually creative, whether it’s “Leave Me Alone,” made up completely of photo-like images or “Remember The Time,” which journeys to Ancient Egypt. But behind the mini-movies with incredible dance routines, some of his most impressive works are the socially conscious videos. In “Heal The World,” we see children showing soldiers how to achieve peace and in “Earth Song,” we see the planet reverse the course of destruction brought on by humans. Even stronger are videos like “Bad,” “Beat It,” and even “You Rock My World,” which suggest dance as an alternative to violence.
Ultimately, the term “music video” doesn’t seem fitting for Michael. Many of his short films were almost 10 minutes in length. Some of Hollywood’s biggest actors may never get to work with the likes of Spike Lee, John Landis, and Martin Scorsese; all three directed for MJ. His creative vision and courageous choices have lead to a body of work that has sealed his place in history for this medium alone.
House of Jackson
Michael developed a sense of fashion that he chose to maintain through the years. It became an easily identifiable part of his celebrity primarily because his look was incorporated into both his videos and tours. While everyone did not necessary think he was vogue, his style did have its followers. The look of many pop stars today is a nod to MJ and at the height of his career, he created a fashion frenzy that set the trend of a decade.
The King of Pop’s most consistent look was the military suit. Often over-the-top with bright colors and sparkles, it were distinct and adaptable for both appearances with the president and at the Grammys. The little accents of his look though became much more of a trademark. Constantly wearing sunglasses, usually sporting a fedora, and of course having white socks. He also placed tape on his fingers but it was the glove that became Michael’s most recognizable accessory.
Toward the end of his career, his style was almost exclusively his and not one commonly copied. His contribution to pop music style lives on though in artists like Justin Timberlake, Usher, or Ne-Yo who each have rocked a fedora, likely a look they saw MJ sport when they were younger. His greatest contribution to fashion was when he was truly on top of the world, the Thriller years. The red jacket with zippers was a craze that many famous faces have admitted to mimicking in the ’80s. That look remains relevant with multiple references in pop culture today in both song and film.
The King of Pop has often been described as the consummate performer, a title he quickly earned from his solo concerts. The last one available on DVD is the Dangerous Tour. The HBO special, which featured a live telecast of his performance in Bucharest is one of the most expensive concerts the network has ever purchased the rights to and one of the most watched. Two of Michael’s tours, took the top spots in a recent poll for the best to ever to play at Madison Square Garden. His performance on tour shows his ability to put together an unforgettable night mixed with classic numbers and new routines, constantly keeping his audience entertained.
What made Michael’s show so incredible is his ability to know what to keep and what to change. For each tour, his routine for “Beat It” stayed virtually untouched, some changes came to “Thriller,” and almost completely new openings and finales were created. His performance alone is impressive but his ability to play director of the show simultaneously is what makes him stand apart from the rest. Everything comes on his cue, allowing him to hold moments for effect and play with the audience. Even on slow songs, MJ has mapped out the choreography to help him tell that song’s story. It is one thing to hold a crowd with bright colors, pyrotechnics, and backup dancers but Michael had the audience just as involved when it was simply him with his voice and his moves.
In his “Live in Bucharest” special, we see a skill MJ masters throughout all of his shows, an unforgettable entrance. He jumps out of nowhere onto the stage and stands there motionless for minutes, letting the moment “sizzle,” as he puts it. From there he can keep the audience for the first half of his song all by himself, no backup dancers or stunning visuals behind him. Over the next two hours, an amazing flow of special effects, impressive choreography, and a lasting social lesson take the stage. The tour was an incredible undertaking at the time as the set for each concert took three days to complete.
Based on the Dangerous Tour special and what clips of the HIStory Tour that are available on YouTube, it is clear MJ had a formula. A dramatic entrance, a set list comprised of classic hits and new tracks along with a Jackson 5 medley, and a strong moral message to end the show. This blueprint remained in what would have been his final show. The outdoor venues holding almost 50,000 people were gone along with the techniques for performing his songs at those locations. Michael’s final set of concerts would be in a more intimate setting, giving him a chance to create a completely new kind of show.
This Is It
A couple weeks is all that separated MJ from a triumphant return to the stage and the tragic death preparing for that moment. It is without a doubt, the dark ending to one of the brightest careers in music but it should also shine a light on his commitment for excellence and showmanship. Often artists who lose their life to drugs are in the lows of their careers and removed from the world. While Michael’s state of being at that time could not have been healthy, he was fully involved in developing a masterpiece. MJ never made it to opening night but it is safe to say This Is It could have easily been the greatest concert ever put on by a pop star.
The film that came in place of that show was a celebration of The King of Pop’s creative genius. In those behind-the-scene moments the public was not expected to see, we got to watch Michael, at age 50, show us how he still reigns over music. His voice sounds incredible, the choreography he created decades before remains fresh, he is still in tune with what is current and able to adjust his work accordingly.
On the surface, one must appreciate the incredible costumes, sets, and production of the show. MJ was going to be dressed in some of the most stunning and technologically advanced outfits. His set included the classic cherry picker, new larger-than-life props, and a huge LED screen. Most impressive were the vignettes they shot for the tour that replaced his music videos as introductions to songs. It was Michael’s touch on the show though that shined more than any of these elements.
Some of his songs seemed as if they were reborn in the film. The beginning of “Human Nature” with just him and a few piano keys was brilliant.
Slowing down the start and end of “The Way You Make Me Feel” was equally fresh. The vignettes for “Smooth Criminal” and “Earth Song” were impressive, short pieces of cinematography that provided a new take on their original music videos. The most clever addition though was the reinvented routine for “Thriller.” Clearly inspired by the “Ghost” music video, he put a brand new spin on the story and made it in 3D. The look was great but even more enjoyable was the dance break at the end, lifted from the songs, “Ghost” and “Threatened.”
Throughout the film we see Michael making meticulous changes to the show. Holding notes, mapping out dance moves, cuing his musicians, and assigning the location of props were just some of the decisions we see him make on camera. Each improves the planned performance exponentially.
Although his show never made it to opening night, through the footage captured on camera, we see that MJ was set to end his career on top. While he didn’t get the chance to bring this final project to life, he was able to set one more record. “This Is It” is now the most successful concert film of all time. More importantly, it has helped to shift the focus back to Michael’s creative genius.
This Isn’t It
We will never get that ultimate King of Pop show but we will get to see his music evolve and take new forms of entertainment. His songs were made for a Cirque Du Soleil show and now he’s getting two. A new video game will celebrate Michael’s dance moves and hope to pass them on to players looking to learn them. Most of all, his music will continue to be available and we’ll get to hear previously unreleased music under the world’s largest record deal ever. Penned after his death and totaling $250 million, it confirms MJ’s place in music history. While current artists are struggling to keep the industry growing, Sony has turned to a fallen artist to carry their company through this decade.
It has been said that Michael was arguably the most famous living person in the world. Perhaps after the current U.S. president at any given time and the Queen of England, he came in third. That level of celebrity is one that few can fathom, including many of today’s stars. It would likely be difficult for anyone to live a regular life under that level of constant attention but especially for an artist who was deprived of the upbringing every kid deserves. The King of Pop discusses this topic in the appropriately named “Childhood” track from HIStory.
“No one understands me,” is one of the early lines of the song. It was chosen as the theme for Free Willy 2 but it’s clear the meaning also tells Michael’s story. He address his critics head on, “People say I’m not okay / ‘Cause I love such elementary things…” but instead of showing anger, he asks for acceptance. “It’s been my fate to compensate for the / Childhood / I’ve never known…” MJ ultimately looks for understanding from those watching. “Have you seen my childhood?” he asks, likely as both a reference to an upbringing that was rough by anyone’s standards but also as if he feels like it is a lost possession he has not found. Toward the end of the song Michael ends with a compassionate request, “Before you judge me, try hard to love me.”
Some have said that MJ actually had two childhoods; the first was when he was young, eager to prove himself as a mature and talented singer. The other, when he was older, trying to recreate the experiences he missed out on because of a grueling schedule. Neither were healthy or what any child deserved. No one can defend his’s lifestyle but it is fair to argue that he was a victim of a life robbed of its childhood and innocence. A loss Michael spent his whole life trying to recover unsuccessfully.
Jackson, Not Jacko
Most celebrities have trouble with media coverage but given Michael’s level of fame and often-curious behavior, he was a favorite of all news outlets. While most probably covered his story accurately, it was a few who ruined the image of the industry as a whole for MJ. They became the subject of numerous songs as the King of Pop could never handle that level of scrutiny. “You’re a parasite in black in white,” he said of them in “Tabloid Junkie” from HIStory. It comes with the territory of the public spotlight but in his later years, scandals ultimately eclipsed Michael’s music career in the eyes of many reporters. His death has forced everyone to reexamine his life and weigh his merits with his missteps. In the final analysis, MJ’s story cannot be told without acknowledging those troubling times but his triumphs overshadow any of those moments. Put simply, Michael made one the greatest contributions to music in a generation.
In the year since his death, we have seen MJ celebrated with both glamorous and humble gestures equally honoring his life. From admiring fans taking to YouTube to an incredible video put together by Spike Lee, all have been touching. Every major awards ceremony has worked the King of Pop into their show, from an intricate set of performances at MTV’s Video Music Awards to a brief acknowledgment in the Oscars’ “In Memoriam” montage. All help to underline how much Michael is missed but also how rare of a talent he was, a performer we may never see the likes of for decades to come. Most importantly, they have helped to start the process of closure and move the world toward appreciating his legacy. These tributes come on the heels of new projects that will truly let his music live forever.
June 25, 2010
On the one-year anniversary of Michael’s death, I am still saddened by the fact that he was deprived of that chance to make his grand comeback. He was just days away from making one of the most incredible creative works of our time come to life.The past 12 months have allowed me to learn so much more about MJ, both as an artist and person. I am more proud to be a fan of his now than I have ever been before and glad that he has played a part in my life since I can remember. My greatest takeaway from the past year though remains the same as the one I made on Twitter the night he died. For me, he still remains and will always be The King of Pop, the definition of an icon, and the greatest entertainer of all time.
Posted on Saturday, June 25 2011.
KREM-TV Reporter. USC Class of 2008 Alum. Seattleite.