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Where does Michael Jackson fit in the pop pantheon?

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With millions around the world mourning his death and some commentators hitting outlandish heights of hyperbole while trying to assess his cultural impact, Michael Jackson poses two fascinating questions for students of popular music.

Where does the self-professed King of Pop fit in the pantheon of musical greats? And will his recordings continue to endure 10, 20 or 50 years in the future?

Eulogizing the King of Rock 'n' Roll after his death in 1977, rock critic Lester Bangs famously wrote, "I can guarantee you one thing: We will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis."

Bangs himself died a few months before the release of "Thriller" in 1982, so we'll never know if the best-selling album of all time might have prompted him to revise his opinion about Elvis Presley's lock on the title of pop music's biggest unifying force. I suspect that Bangs just got caught up in the frenzy over Presley's passing: Certainly he knew that a generation before Elvis, Frank Sinatra had an impact almost as profound and wide-reaching, while a generation after, the Beatles did the same.

During the two decades I've spent as a music journalist and critic, I've encountered hardcore gangsta rappers, slick R&B thugs, ditzy dance-pop divas and multiply-pierced and tattooed hard-rockers who seemingly had nothing in common sonically or stylistically--except that they all agreed on Michael Jackson.

Part of this is because these diverse music lovers grew up with Jackson, whether it was at the tail end of the Baby Boom, during the young singer's reign as an irrepressible bubblegum-pop star in the Jackson 5, or later on, during the ascendance of Generation X in the '80s, a decade he defined as a ubiquitous presence on MTV and half a dozen radio formats after the phenomenal success of "Thriller."

If you're of a certain age, to disavow the importance of Jackson now is to dismiss everything you hold as unique and distinctive about your youth. But his death doesn't resonate only because of nostalgia.

To this day, whenever an ambitious artist enters the recording studio and attempts to blend funk, soul, R&B, disco, jazz, rock and hip-hop, the best parts of Jackson's recorded legacy stand as a guiding beacon. "You can see his influence in his sister Janet, in Justin Timberlake, Usher, Britney Spears, and in Jennifer Lopez and Mariah Carey," superstar producer and Arista Records chief Antonio "L.A." Reid wrote in 2004. "A world without Michael Jackson would be a very, very different world."

Many of those who knew him portrayed a humble and self-effacing man when they spoke to the obituary writers. Audio engineer and record producer Bruce Swedien, who worked with Jackson on "Thriller" and many other recordings, told National Public Radio, "Michael was quiet and unassuming in the studio, and if you weren't aware of what was going on, you almost wouldn't know what we were doing."

In a prepared statement, Paul McCartney, a one-time collaborator turned rival (having been outbid by Jackson for control of the Beatles' catalog), said, "He was a massively talented boy man with a gentle soul."

But Jackson wasn't quiet, gentle or boyish when arguing for his own place in history. In fact, through the quarter-century since "Thriller," he flaunted an ego that seemed boundless, and which could be ugly and unsettling.

For the cover of his 1995 album "HIStory," one of only two albums Jackson managed to release in the last 18 years, the star chose cover art depicting him as an enormous statue towering over a turbulent landscape while wearing militaristic garb complete with machine-gun ammunition belts. It was based, he said, on a sculpture in Prague that set the record as the world's largest statue of Joseph Stalin.

Meanwhile, on the title track of that album, the star used musical samples to equate his talents as a songwriter with those of the great composers Beethoven and Mussorgsky and historical audio clips to invite comparisons of his accomplishments with those of Charles Lindbergh, Lou Gehrig, Robert Kennedy, Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

The most devoted acolyte would be hard-pressed to make the case that Jackson had as great an impact on the world as Dr. King. Which brings us back to the question of where the musician does fit in the history books.

The singular success of "Thriller" makes it easy to forget that Jackson's canon actually is much skimpier than those of Sinatra, Presley, the Beatles or any other superstar who had such a massive impact on the culture. After the Jackson 5, he spent the first seven years of his solo career trying to find his voice. He produced his masterpiece, "Off the Wall," in 1979, followed by two strong discs, though "Thriller" was overrated and "Bad" (1987) was overhyped. That's a total of three keepers out of 10 solo albums.

During the last 20 years of his career, Jackson barely performed live in the United States, and his recordings went from being merely disappointing to being downright embarrassing. The last two, "HIStory" and "Invincible" (2001), were dominated by songs boasting a weird and disturbing mix of messianic posturing, persecution complex, paranoia and obsessive concern for what one of his tunes called "all the lost children."

The star excoriated the media for reveling in the scandalous charges that he'd had sexual relations with underage boys. "Stop maliciously attacking my integrity," Jackson whined in "Privacy," while in "Tabloid Junkie," he sneered, "With your pen you torture men/You'd crucify the Lord." Yet at the same time, he seemed incapable of singing about anything else.

Nothing can ever be predicted with certainty in a world as tumultuous as pop music. But in the end, if I had to hazard a guess, I would bet that aspiring young musicians will still be finding inspiration in the best grooves from "Off the Wall," "Thriller" and "Bad" half a century from now, and that the songs of the Jackson 5 will still make even the most self-conscious hipster grin and bound onto the dance floor.

But with the passage of time, as more details of the travails of Jackson's final years become public, the songs from the last phase of his career will only become more troubling as desperate cries for help from a talented man quite literally melting down in full view of the world. And every bit as loud as his music will be a life story that stands as a cautionary tale about the debilitating, corrosive and possibly lethal power of fame.

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25 Comments

As evident by the out pouring of grief and shock around the world, Michael crossed many generations and many cultures. Although we all had varied opinions on his personal issues, collectively the world agreed that he was one of the greatest entertainers of all time. This is the Pop Generation. And like Sinatra’s impact with the crooners, Elvis’ impact on Rock and Roll, and the Beatles impact on a generation beset with rebellion, Michael’s impact on Pop will most likely never be matched. Someday, I’m sure, another muse will captivate us. And I’m sure when they eventually leave us, whether like a shooting star or a fading sunset, their measure will be matched against Michael Jackson’s. Rest in Peace Michael, the King of Pop.

I don't quite understand the comparison of Michael's death to Elvis. Elvis is not that global especially when he was still alive. Michael is global. He is known everywhere, in every corner of the earth. Those who aren't into western music wouldn't know who is Elvis, who is the beatles, but they know Michael Jackson. Ask anyone, anyone will know Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson's accomplishments surpassed Elvis by a million miles. Not saying Elvis wasn't great but he pales in comparision to Michael Jackson.

Thriller is the biggest selling record of all time (although this fact is often not cited). Bigger than anything by Elvis or the Beatles. What you and other music columnists do not say or qualify is that Elvis and the Beatles were only popular largely in European countries. As shocking as it is to contemplate, European countries are not the only countries in the world. Micheal Jackson is known in every corner of the planet. I just came across a website that was covering an article about how Islamic countries are mourning the loss of Michael Jackson. The Beatles nor Elvis made an impact across such cultural lines.

It is obvious to most intellectual music fans through this (and other) processes that as usual, mainstream (white) media feels the need to diminish the accomplishments of black stars in order to maintain those lesser ones of whites (i.e. Babe Ruth). Yes, I said it. It needed to be said. It's so obvious all over the web and TV.

Pfff... It looks like you had your conclusion decided from the beginning and tried to bend facts and numbers to your convenience.

You don't think he wasn't as big as The Beatles or Elvis? Be my guest, but please don't take us for fools with your argumentation.

Most of the views come from Westerners to whom Elvis, Beatles and Sinatra made big impact. However, now it is the global appeal that matters. Those days, Europe and US consist the 'world' but now the world truly consist of all countries. Everyone else was just famous in the Europe and US but not the WORLD. Ask anyone in India, China, Japan or even the remote areas of Tibet/Nepal, almost everyone knows MJ. The same cannot be said for others even in their own heydays. So MJ is definitely bigger than every other entertainers. Stop concentrating on Europe/US and open up to the real world.

Thriller is the biggest selling record of all time (although this fact is often not cited). Bigger than anything by Elvis or the Beatles. What you and other music columnists do not say or qualify is that Elvis and the Beatles were only popular largely in European countries. As shocking as it is to contemplate, European countries are not the only countries in the world. Micheal Jackson is known in every corner of the planet. I just came across a website that was covering an article about how Islamic countries are mourning the loss of Michael Jackson. The Beatles nor Elvis made an impact across such cultural lines.

It is obvious to most intellectual music fans through this (and other) processes that as usual, mainstream (white) media feels the need to diminish the accomplishments of black stars in order to maintain those lesser ones of whites (i.e. Babe Ruth). Yes, I said it. It needed to be said. It's so obvious all over the web and TV.

Very insightful and honest synopsis of Jackson's career. This is the only one I need to read. Thanks Jim.

Is Thriller the biggest selling album of all time? I thought the Eagles held that for awhile at least. What's amazing is how often the number gets inflated. According to CNN it has sold 50 million copies or 100 million copies and he has sold over 750 million total records worldwide. That means if Thriller had sold 100 million copies than his other 10 solo records sold 650 million records?!? So he has all the top selling records of all time?

For an industry that complains about numbers all the time you would think they could straighten out top sellers.

Frankly selling the most records doesn't make you great. N'Sync sold 2 million in one week how great were they?

Jim your coverage has been the most fair I have ever seen, your not demonizing him and you are recognizing his accomplishments, and his faults, and not accusing. The only thing I really can fault Michael on is his handling of the Lennon and McCartney and pre 68 Harrison songwriting rights. When he bought ATV (which is the company The Beatles songs were sold to by Dick James when they were in India), first he stoped talking to McCartney after that. He allows songs like All You Need Is Love to become All You Need Is Luvs, and he has never returned McCartney or Yoko's calls to discuss the percentages. They are still getting the same amount on the songwriting royalties that they got in 1968. So as McCartney discribed it, it's like trying to ask his boss for a raise and the boss is ignoring him. I wonder what will happen now and if McCartney, and Yoko and Olivia Harrison want them back they better act soon. But to your point about ego and how he is not really humble in public, I think The Beatles songwriting rights is a prime example.

Whenever I hear MJ being credited for breaking the colour boundaries, I can't help but feel that others before him are getting forgotten. Louis Armstrong? Nat King Cole? Stevie Wonder? Marvin Gaye? Diana Ross?

Granted I've never been a fan of MJ's (I am one of the few who never bought "Thriller"), but I think it's also important to credit the main man responsible for a large part of MJ's success: Quincy Jones. Everything was fine until they stopped working together, and that's when the hits stopped and MJ believed he could recapture the magic by throwing gobs of money at everything.

And as far as his musical influence, I don't believe it will ever be as historically significant or as great as Crosby, Sinatra, The Beatles, or Nirvana were. Since he wasn't important musically since 1987, we already have what MJ wrought: Timberlake, Spears and all those poptarts like them who took only the superficial elements of MJ's success and made mainstream pop music today what it is...mush.

I have compared the two Icons Maichael Jackson & Elvis only because the fame became larger than the music.

Yet unfortunately, the only thing interesting about Elvis contribution to Music is that he was the first White man to sing Rock & Roll music like the African American creators of the genre.

Given the turbulent times of the period, Elvis made Rock ok for the Pop culture to play...Matter of fact, Elvis, while not his fault, was part of the Greatest fraud in the history of Music & set back the mindsets of generations of music listeners.

Even to this day...Many Americans look at Rock as a White American thing.

Elvis has no relevent place, outside of Caricature & Style & Fashion sense,
Other than being a White guy with a Soul voice & some hot moves learned not from the places of segration.

Michael Jackson on the other hand, is Genuine in his contributions to the music industry and how it was sold.

@ Richard:

Now, that's not at all fair. Elvis didn't just take (or steal, depending on one's perspective) African-American music and appropriate it for his own means. What made Elvis such a star was that he took EVERYTHING -- jazz-pop standards, Negro spirituals, choir music, blues, country and western, Vegas-y lounge, classical -- and put it all together in a complete package. If you listen to a single like "Heartbreak Hotel," there's a lot more going on than the supposed theft of black music.

By contrast, Michael took disco, found the soul, and made it black again; then took rock, found the soul, and made it black again; then took all of that, turned it around again, and made it white. If you need proof of this, listen to the grooves in Off the Wall, then compare them to the ones on Dangerous. Michael was much more of a pop music David Bowie than Mozart. He didn't change anything; he just made everything a lot more accessible.

That's why I think the comparison to Elvis and the Beatles is apt. All were popularizers of their favorite music. Elvis loved all the things I mentioned earlier; the Beatles loved Elvis, blues, soul, early rock 'n' roll, folk... and that all led to their greatness. Presley, the Beatles, and Jackson were all popularizers of underground music; hence their place in the pantheon of great pop musicians is secure. But arguing that Jackson is somehow more artistic than Elvis is ridiculous: Michael no more created a genre than Presley did.

JD, you are the only one I've seen in the media to take a fair and reasoned approach to Michael Jackson without falling into the ridiculous hype that's everywhere. After watching Nancy Grace declare that for an actor to be asked to appear in an MJ video was "like winning an Oscar," I really appreciate this.

If you were a child in the 80s (I was born in 1980), Michael Jackson was everywhere and pretty much embodied pop music during your formative years. I can't hear any of the cuts from "Off the Wall," "Thriller," or "Bad" without remembering some happy times in a very troubled childhood. Plus the songs just plain hold up.

As others have pointed out, he was the first truly worldwide pop music superstar and remains so to this day. That, in and of itself, is a daunting legacy. Don't forget that Elvis and the Beatles (at least in their solo careers) each released their share of crap, too. Jackson could have easily churned out an album of garbage every 2 years if he'd wanted, but he didn't. I respect that drive for perfection, even when his last two weren't so hot.

His ability to sing, dance, and captivate a crowd like no one since Elvis (sorry, the Beatles had no stage moves) was incredible. The man could do things with his body live on stage that would normally requre a Hollywood special effects crew and camera tricks.

It's sad what became of him the past 20 years, but the three things that got him the most flack were not his fault. Body dysmorphia disorder is a real mental condition stemming from well-documented childhood abuse. Jackson himself, after dedicating much of his time and fortune to helping children, was the victim of multiple child molestation allegations that were proven to have no merit. He also did suffer from a disfiguring skin condition requring him to wear makeup, hats, sunglasses, masks, and full-body outfits just to walk in public--videos on youtube demonstrate this very clearly. Plus his superstardom made leaving his house a major logistical operation. In light of that, you can't blame him for getting defensive, even loopy and reclusive. Who wouldn't be feeling like a victim in his shoes, or wanting to retreat to the happy childhood he never got? He really did live in his own bizarre reality, but he had little choice in the matter.

His legacy is also a lot more diverse than people give him credit for. Pretty much anyone who's tried to forge a career in R&B or rap over the past 30 years can and does cite Jackson as a major influence, and that extends far beyond the lame clones we routinely get forced upon us. Hell, every rapper (especially Eminem) has copped the bassline to Billy Jean for at least one song (or in Eminem's case, at least half a dozen). Saying Jackson's influence is limited only to the manufactured wannabes like Usher is similar to saying that the Beatles only influenced some Britpop in the 90s.

Personally, I like to think that if Jackson had lived, the London concerts would have been a roaring success and led him to recapture the magic with Quincy Jones one last time. The damage to his career was done, but there was nowhere left for him to go up.

It'll be interesting to find out what revelations come to light about Jackson in the coming months, but if timing really is everything in showbiz, then Jackson couldn't have picked a more poignant time to pass on.

R.I.P.

dear jim, i enjoy your column,but to call the Thriller album "overrated" is wrong. the best selling album of all-time included top musicians such as eddie van halen and members of Toto.every song on that album is good.you can't say that about too many albums.the first Boston and Van Halen or II come to mind.six of Thriller's songs made the top 10. i saw the last time michael jackson came in concert to chicago on the Bad tour. it was great.i think i paid double on the face value which i want to say was $30.00.the double disc History cd came out in 1995 and i remember buying it on the day it came out from circuit city.that was a poor seller for michael jackson's standards with all the hype and promotional displays. and 'Invinceable from 1991 sold only two million i think which is a lot for a regular artist.i was at the regeneration tour on friday night at the rosemont theatre and terri nunn from the group Berlin dedicated "take my breath away." it was her birthday that night 50 also like michael jackson and she was in shock and said that michael jackson lost heart about 10 years ago. i do think he was guilty of child molestation and why all the plastic sugeries? i think he bleongs up there with the likes of Elvis and Sinatra.i don't think the music industry will have someone of his caliber anytime soon.regards---joe gilleran

Jim derogatis its a shame about wha u wrote about Micheal Jackson in ur sunday editorial ur just full of hate,nobody will never remember u when u pass even sun-time readers dont even know how ur . The whole world are grieffing 4 this man & the only thin 4 u is under mine his achievement & success i fuck u haters. I never subscribe to ur paper again its a waist of money i can get all my news on internet & much more .

You're being kind.

The Jackson Five was bubble-gum music.

Off the Wall and Thriller were great. He has been a has-been for twenty years.

I feel sorry for him to some extent...his plunge into weirdness.

I can't believe the media making him into a GOD. It's really comedic.

Now their going to try to pin the doctor for what? Twenty years of drug abuse.

Where were his brothers and sisters??

All of the comments from Michael's friends reminds me of the saying,
"With friends like this, who need enemies." Some of those, that are now speaking of their deep love and fondness, had to be aware for his addiction. Another saying could be, "If we don't learn from history, we're destined to make the same mistakes."
I really enjoy your writing. Marilyn Urso

Aside from Michael Jackson’s impact on the music world, the Thriller album should be credited with transforming Halloween in the United States from an evening to a full blown SEASON. Before Thriller, Halloween was a one-night thing with a pumpkin and some candy.

Finally, Jim you put out a balanced and reasoned analysis. I do not agree with the assertion alot of music-crit types make about Off the Wall being better than Thriller (this just encompassed more sounds and better hooks than OTW which was disco).

Another point I din't agree with is the size of his work being measured by just his albums. He was a song and dance guy, and practically invented the modern music video. So, his video production of Thrille, Beat It, Bad, Smooth Criminal, etc are just as much his body of work as any of his albums. Not even mentioning his incomparable dance ability and the best of his stage performances.

I do agree very much with the assessment of everything post-Bad. This is a very disturbing part of his body of work and signals an alarm of what happens at the very apex of fame.

@Brendan D.

Robert Johnson,Little Richard,James Brown, Motown, Michael Jackson.

Within these Great Walls you will find most if not ALL Creation of Popular Music that is bought & sold Today.

To Compare Elvis Presley's actual contribution to "Music" is to compare the food of a Feeble mind.

This is what Elvis was to the Times, food for the Feeble mind of racism that was Fed to the World.

"Pat Boone" was singing in Sweaters...& the Music Industry & The Powers that be, were trying to keep a Lid on Rock by singing African American Cover songs. The White Way.
Then Came Elvis. Although others created the music,No one of color was allowed to play in his one man show. Great??!!
(Before Rock was hid in the Closet, now it's Pat Boone)

"jazz-pop standards, Negro spirituals, choir music -Elvis didn't sing Pat Boones Version- blues"...African American.

Soul music was never underground,unless you were from those times & in those places where the music from the actual Artist had to be hidden.


Country Music...

Some very interesting comments.

I never thought about MJ's global reach, versus the Beatles' and Elvis' more Western influence.

Of course, had they been around in the Internet age, they would have been just as globally influential.

But they weren't.

Even most whites of Frank Sinatra's time knew that if you wanted to have a really good time, you went to Harlem. You took the A-Train and you went to Harlem; where swing and jazz was being played like nobody's business. Elvis Aaron Presley's career spanned over two decades, but in contrast Michael's career has spanned well over 4 decades.
Elvis's has been dead since 1977 selling records for over 32 years. Michael has already started down that path with over 750 million sales at present. His record sales will almost certainly eclipse Elvis- The Beatles- The Eagles and any other rock band in history. If he has not earned the title of Undisputed King, he certainly will in time.

There will be no argument then and he will forever be known as simply the King. Elvis had a core audience made up of mostly whites; but Michael again has transcended race. Having a following on almost every continent; encompassing almost every skin color.
Now you just cant beat that.
Gib

I think Americans do not realize the full impact that Michael Jackson had on not only their own country, but to the rest of the world. As many internationals have testified here, I grew up in Singapore in the 80s, and to me, Michael Jackson was the embodiment of everything I loved as a child. He not only provided the soundtrack of my youth, but also pretty much stood for what we knew as the American ideal. All my friends felt the same way. I loved him then, continued to defend him through the court case, and love him now even in death. Just look up videos on youtube of the mass hysteria he caused everywhere he went around the world and then maybe you will get a sense of perspective as to why the world mourned as we did so. Michael Jackson wasn't any regular run-of-the-mill popstar. He was probably the most famous person on the planet. Even in the most remote corners of Africa or Asia, people knew Michael Jackson. People keep arguing about who was bigger: Elvis, the Beatles or MJ - to me, there was no fight.. Michael Jackson was waaaaay bigger than either. Please, I hadn't even heard of Elvis or the Beatles until much later in life. Maybe you "too cool for school, too cool for pop music" Americans will try to argue differently, but take my word for it, growing up in a land pretty much on the other side of the globe, Michael Jackson was a global superstar, with fame, popularity, and influence that stretched far beyond what all these complainers give him credit for. I doubt we will ever see someone as big again. The media attention his death received was a justified and deserved sending-off for someone of his global stature.

I have a lot of collection of music and albums of M.J. and I miss him so much.
Thanks for this good review for Micheal. Good write my friend.

Your commentary is very much needed about the cultural impact of his music. His musical success is seen in the different genres that he utilized to display musical genius. "Thriller" not only set him apart musically, but culturally as well. As a pre-teen I distinctly remember the shift between “pre-Michael Jackson” and “post-Michael Jackson” (now). For me, this "Post-Michael Jackson" era brought increased opportunities and expanded my horizons to be more creative. Not only did his contributions prompt increased opportunities musically, but his contributions have started a creative iconic wavelength that takes sincere reflection and appreciation of ones individual beauty. I am forever changed and will be impacted daily by his life.

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This page contains a single entry by Jim DeRogatis published on June 27, 2009 9:41 AM.

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