Just Why Is Michael Jackson So Important?

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Today marks the one year anniversary of the King of Pop’s passing, so you know we gotta have somethin’. No exclusives or comps on this side, we’ll leave that to YN’s comprehensive mixes which you really need to get familiar with if you haven’t already. I was thinkin’ back to the coverage that began after MJ’s death and remembered a piece I penned for City On My Back after reading one too many ‘MJ was overrated’ stories by some online hack. Check out the link or hit the jump for the full article. One love.

It seems like the backlash is finally kicking into effect. Too much TV coverage, too much print coverage, even too many online discussions apparently. At first I had a list of blogs and media outlets giving opinion pieces on why Jackson was overrated and really not the special talent that they feel some are making him out to be. Then I thought… why on Earth would I want to drive traffic to their sites due to their half-baked ideas, attention-baiting claims and un-researched “facts?” If you really want to seek them out, go ahead and Google the words “why is Michael Jackson important” and try not to throw anything at the screen.

There’s a reason why Jackson was more important than 99.9% of his fellow artists. Actually, I can think of ten. And if you’re so inclined, I’ll share some with you.

Thriller. Let’s start with the most obvious. To this day it’s still considered the benchmark for the quintessential classic album. Seven successful singles on a nine track LP, genre-defining videos and a Guinness Book World Record of 110 million copies sold (double that of its nearest competitor). But what about the music itself? While most of his peers struggled to come to terms with a post-Disco landscape, some wallowing in empty electronic and soulless synth, Jackson shrewdly strode the line between Funk, Rock and R&B. Thriller was a clinic course in crossover fusion. Perhaps the most vital element of the album however was its ability to distinctly set MJ apart from other musicians. His sound and style were starkly unique and defined his music from this moment on and for the better part of his career.

He saved the music industry. It wasn’t just about the music and sales of the album, it was also the impact it had on music commerce in general. Thriller hit shelves in 1982 during one of the worst post-war recessions in the US. The music industry was flailing, but its release helped spark an immediate repatriation between casual consumers and music stores. Previously, entertainment had been an afterthought in their budget, but as the LP’s buzz and critical acclaim roared unchallenged, it suddenly became an essential item in the home rather than a luxury. Once back in the stores, people weren’t just picking up Jackson’s album, they were picking up others as well. The commercial stimulus was enough to keep the industry afloat until the recession passed.

He boosted Compact Disc technology sales. 1982 also saw the first year of CD pressings for music in the States. Potential customers however were a little sceptical. How did this new technology fare against their beloved vinyl and tape cassettes? Was the sound quality worth shelling out a paycheque for the new equipment? In Thriller, store clerks had the perfect demo product. Masterfully produced by Quincy Jones, its layered tracks and sound effects utilized the CD’s abilities to its fullest. With the album selling out in stores, it only made sense that early adaptors and 80s hipsters would want to be part of the exclusive group that could hear songs like “Beat It” in the quality it was recorded. The CD format never looked back and within a decade had cancelled out its predecessors.

He broke the colour barrier on MTV. Thriller, CDs and off-the-shoulder neon t-shirts weren’t the only craze of the early 80s. Music videos were slowly capturing the imagination of the country thanks to a new cable channel called MTV. Just one problem, they’d almost only ever play rock music and weren’t terribly interested in showing faces of colour on white America’s TV screens. The decision became so unsubtle that during a 1983 interview with a station VJ, the legendary David Bowie abruptly asked “Why are there practically no Black artists on the network?” When it came time to shop the “Billie Jean” video, CBS Records were rebuffed, prompting president Walter Yetnikoff to famously tell the station “ I’m not going to give you any more videos [from any CBS artists] and I’m going to go public and fucking tell them about the fact you don’t want to play music by a black guy.” MTV relented and played “Billie Jean.” And “Beat It.” And “Thriller.” The rest is history.

He transformed advertising and marketing. Following Jackson’s successful bidding for The Beatles catalogue in 1985, the singer quickly flipped the licensing rights for “Revolution” to Nike. The emerging shoe manufacturer was shaping up a television marketing campaign for a new line with budding superstar Michael Jordan. Yet, this was untraveled territory. It was rare to hear many big name songs on commercials at the time due to expenses and conflicts of interest, much less one from The Beatles. Unaffected by the firestorm of controversy it cooked up (and the threat of legal action from Paul McCartney himself), MJ pushed the deal through. The experiment was a hit and every smart marketing company soon followed suit. Just over 20 years later, the usage of big market music is common place in all commercials from clothing to tourism to technology.

His immense influence. Let’s take it from the top. The Jackson 5 were the prototype for almost every boy band that followed. The New Editions, the New Kids on the Block, the Backstreet Boys et all. And when the kiddie singers wanted to grow up? It was MJ’s style they turned to. Whether it was Justin Timberlake going from looking like KD Lang to doing his best Off The Wall impression on “Rock Your Body” or Usher and Chris Brown ransacking his arsenal of dance moves, Jackson never said a word. He never complained of being imitated or ripped off because he was secure in his musical legacy. Countless heirs, but only one king.

He was an open resource, and supporter, of hip-hop sampling. During a time when some successful black artists were still turning their nose up at what they considered a fad culture, Jackson openly embraced rap music, even collaborating at one point with the King of New York himself. And then there are the breaks– the countless rap classics crafted from his sound. Nas, LL Cool J, Public Enemy, 2Pac, De La Soul, Puffy, Ghostface…. the list literally goes on. For a great mix of examples, check out The Smooth Criminal on Beat Breaks.

He was a peerless philanthropist. A supporter of 39 listed charities with over $300 million in donations, some will remember Jackson purely for his generosity. With his Heal the World Foundation, MJ was dedicated to helping a range of causes from domestic drug and alcohol addiction to starvation and famine abroad. He frequently donated the profits earned from humanitarian singles such as “Man in the Mirror” & “Heal the World” and co-wrote the all-star fundraising single “We Are the World” alongside Lionel Richie. The millennium issue of the Guinness Book of World Records formally recognized Jackson as the most charitable entertainer of all time—a feat which may stand for some time yet.

He was a Global Icon. At one point he was considered the most recognizable man on the planet. Jackson’s success didn’t merely stop at American radio or the Eurasian borders, his music was fanatically loved across the world from Accra to Riyadh to Tokyo. He could sell out a concert, or 50, at the drop of a hat. His performances and music were so electrifying that they crossed all cultural conflicts and language barriers. With over 750 million records sold (and those are only the one that’ve been scanned, most critics believe the final figure is closer to 1 billion, if not over it. Yes, you read that right… 1 BILLION.) Jackson exists in a realm populated by only two other acts—Elvis and the Beatles.

He was the American Dream, for better or worse. For the comet that blazes across the sky too fast and falls to Earth too soon. Jackson was an American story. Born into a working class family of nine with every odd against him to achieve, he took his talents and mastered them. His work ethic was infamous, practicing and perfecting every spin, every slide and every song. The blue collar attitude instilled in him from a young age (amongst other more negative traits) took his star from the frigid streets of Gary, Indiana into a galaxy of its own. Why is Michael Jackson so important? Because he was bigger than music. Because he instituted change. Because he was just that damn good. And we’re never going to forget him.

R.I.P.

— Snoop Bloggy Blogg

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