Note: To commemorate the 1 year anniversary of the death of Michael Jackson (who passed away on June 25, 2009), I am re-posting the following. This was originally posted on July 3, 2009
Although I wrote about Michael Jackson over at my pop culture blog on the day he died (which you can read by clicking here), I had been meaning to put together a separate post about MJ for Diversity Ink. For various reasons, I was unable to get one up until now.
The day after Michael's death, I was preparing for my radio show that night which was a tribute to him. As I was getting ready to head to the radio station, I was pondering Michael's place among the greats of popular music. To me, Michael is in that exclusive club of ultra-megastars (along with Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and The Beatles). The criteria I used for inclusion is: name recognition on a global level, influence on performing styles and fashion/pop culture (not only on other artists, but the general public), the power to create fan hysteria, and the ability to maintain all of these factors over a long period of time. There are others who come close to this status, but they aren't quite there in my opinion. As a sidebar, I think that Prince could have achieved ultra-megastar status if he wanted it; Madonna would probably sell her soul for entry into that club.
Even within the ultra-megastar club, Michael Jackson rises above the others in one regard: the ability to obliterate racial lines in a way that was unprecedented and has never been duplicated. Just to be clear, I am not saying that the appeal of Sinatra, Elvis, and The Beatles was strictly a "white thing" because I enjoy all of them as I am sure others do too who aren't white. Still, Michael Jackson's crossover appeal puts him in a class by himself.
There have been countless black artists who've had racially diverse fan bases (for example, James Brown, Aretha, and artists on the Motown roster). Having said that, the era's social climate dictated that there were certain boundaries that weren't to be crossed. If Suzie from the suburbs let it be known that she was madly in love with "The Godfather of Soul" after seeing his dazzling performance in Ski Party, I doubt that it would have went over well with her parents. Even though by the 1980s, race relations had improved to a point where it was possible for Michael Jackson to have the type of crossover appeal he had, there were likely non-black parents who weren't thrilled that their kids' bedroom walls were covered with images of "The Gloved One". Still, it was something about Michael Jackson that made it OK for people of all races to scream in delight at the very sight of him. Consider this... if New Edition had the massive crossover appeal of Michael Jackson, do you think Maurice Starr would have found it necessary to create New Kids On the Block?
Over the past week while pondering Michael Jackson's diverse appeal, I thought to myself, "How did he do it?" Although I don't think there's a right or wrong answer, I have a couple of theories. I feel that the grooming Michael received during his years at Motown helped lay the groundwork for his later solo success. I think he also appealed to the kid in us with his Peter Pan persona and ability to do things on stage that appeared magical. Whatever the reasons for Michael Jackson's global appeal, we will never see an artist achieve that level of fame again.
Below is one of my favorite Michael Jackson performances and one that really illustrates the title of this post. It's from one of two 30th anniversary concerts that Michael did at Madison Square Garden in 2001. These are the last shows he ever did.
Michael Jackson 30th Anniversary Billie Jean
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