American Pop presents a snap shot of the ‘King of Pop’ and his historically unprecedented, 10 year stretch of legendary musical history. We examine Michael Jackson’s record-setting run through a decade of artistic global dominance. Without question, Jackson permeated every aspect of pop music in the 1980’s. A decade in which his unique brand of entertainment and societal influence was the musical equivalent of hard-driving rain being carried by the remarkable force of a once in a generation cultural hurricane. It’s near impossible to imagine that there will ever be another human imbued the transcendent talents of Michael Joseph Jackson.
Michael Jackson circa 1977
An Unshakeable Claim: The True ‘King of Pop’
The long, short, and whole of the ‘King of Pop’s’ musical career, specifically with regard to his commercial success and overall achievement is at once unprecedented, unparalleled, and quite frankly, simply unbelievable. Fact: Michael Jackson is the best-selling solo recording artist in all of human history. Between the years of 1979 and 1989, Jackson and his dedicated production team recorded, and released three of the best-selling albums in the history of music. ‘Off the Wall’ (1979), ‘Thriller’ (1982), and ‘Bad’ (1987). The cultural impact of these albums is superseded only by the enormity of their commercial success, both individually and combined.
OFF THE WALL (1979)
Virtually, since it’s August 10th of 1979 release,‘Off the Wall’ (Epic/CBS Records) has been widely considered a musical work of art, and the best disco genre album, ever. Although “Off the Wall” was more polished, nuanced and musically complex than the typical ‘disco’ album of the era, it’s still considered a ‘disco’ album…albeit, the best of them all. It was a legendary collaboration which brought the transcendent talents of Jackson, super producer Quincy Jones, and writing contributions from the likes of Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder and Rod Temperton. This esteemed group having come together for the first, but certainly not the last time. The results remain awe-inspiring.Michael Jackson became the first solo artist to have Four (4) singles from one album to break the Billboard Top 10, including the Grammy Award winning #1 single,”Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”, this single was also Michael’s 1st ever solo Grammy. To date, ‘Off the Wall’ has sold in excess of 20 million units world-wide, in addition to being RIAA Certified 8x Platinum in the United States. Remarkable. Unsurprisingly, ‘Off the Wall’ remains one of the greatest and best-selling albums of all-time.
As a remarkable matter of historical fact, “Thriller’ is the single most commercially successful album in all of human history. It takes a moment to wrap ones mind around the largess of this reality, but here we are. “Thriller” was released by Epic/CBS Records on November 30th of 1982. Almost immediately the album took off running and for all intents and purposes hasn’t stopped, even today some 4 decades later. In fact, within the space of 14 months, with an astonishing 66 million units sold, “Thriller” quickly became the 3rd best-selling album of all-time, on it’s way to becoming the very first album in history to go RIAA Certified 33x Multi-Platinum (not a typo). To add to Jackson’s transcendent legend, he wrote 4 of the 9 tracks on the Quincy Jones produced album. All told, “Thriller” produced a mind-numbing seven (7) Top 10 singles. Including – “Billie Jean”, “Beat It”, “The Girl Is Mine”, “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'”, “Human Nature”, the title track “Thriller”, and “Pretty Young Thing”. Additionally, 1984 saw “Thriller” receive eight (8) Grammy Awards, including ‘Album of the Year’, also unprecedented in history. Not too bad for an album that took the better part of 7 months to produce with a budget of just $750k.
“Thriller” Best Selling Album in Human History
The ‘King of Pop’ circa 1987 (aka When the ‘Changes’ Should’ve Stopped)
As if Michael Jackson’s 1980’s cultural and commercial dominance wasn’t enough following the other-worldly successes of “Off the Wall” and “Thriller”, five years following the release of “Thriller”, Jackson, who composed 9 of the 11 tracks on this album, along with midas touch producer Quincy Jones teamed up again. This time Epic/CBS Records released “Bad” on August 31st of 1987. The ball just kept rolling, this album was a runaway hit in its own right. Lyrically, a more mature version of Jackson took on serious topics in this album, touching on subjects the likes of ‘media bias’, ‘racial profiling‘, in addition to the time-honored musical tradition of ‘love and romance’. More importantly, with the mega success of a 3rd consecutive album, it was clear that Michael Jackson was the legit king of American music and pop culture the 1980’s. Indeed, of the eleven (11) songs on the album, nine (9) were released as singles, with five (5) of those hitting #1 on U.S. Billboard 100 charts, with a sixth hitting the Billboard Top 10. “Bad” reached #1 ranking in thirteen different countries Nothing short of amazing. Indeed, “Bad” has sold in excess of 35 million units worldwide, garnering it a RIAA Diamond Certification. All told, Michael Jackson’s 3rd album in 10 years was nominated for six (6) Grammy Awards, bringing two (2) of those home for the win. In addition, in 2009, “Bad” was given a ranking of No. 43 out of the 100 Greatest Albums of All Time, as detailed by MTV Generation, and a ranking of #22 in Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. A fitting farewell to the Jackson – Jones production tandem.
Michael Jackson Candidly Joyful
Intention vs. Perception = A Legacy Tarnished?
Throughout history, when it come to the proverbial entertainment superstar, more often than not, concepts of intention and perception seem locked in a perennial struggle to define an artists legacy. There is perhaps no greater example of this confusing and dualistic reality than the case of Michael Joseph Jackson aka the ‘King of Pop’.
Intention: The intended artistic delivery of arguably the most successful, and influential entertainer of all-time, is compelling evidence of bedrock insistence. His intention to consistently entertain at the highest levels is clear. His intention to influence his adoring fans who literally span the entire planet, and across generations is virtually sacrosanct. Also true is his intention to reach as many humans with his music as possible, is clearly and in no uncertain terms evidenced by his record-setting and transcendent commercial success.
Michael Jackson circa 1973
Perception: Michael Jackson’s legacy of modified physical appearance. Within the minds of people in the African-American community in America, and black people the world over, it would be difficult to escape the auspices/charges of abandoning his blackness, and as a result abandoning his responsibility to the struggle. Multiple surgeries including rhinoplasty and various other drastic changes in appearance such as skin bleaching (under the claim of the medical condition Vitiligo) and other strange procedures, including ‘chin dimples’ leave a very specific perception if not being purely inexplicable. It’s similar to golfer Tiger Wood’s conjuring an obscure racial identity called ‘Cablanasian‘. The perception is that individual wants to extricate him/herself from being African-American, and all that comes with it. Starting in 1993, Jackson was the accused subject, and criminal defendant in a series of child sexual abuse claims. His defenses spanned ‘extortion’ to a propensity towards ‘idiosyncratic’ behavior around children. The truth is what the truth is, but it’s the perception that has stained Michael Jackson’s legacy, for certain.
At the end of the day, perhaps it’s good practice to separate the artist from the man, with the understanding that cultural icons are indeed human beings. All human beings are flawed by their very nature. The limit of their heights, the depths of their souls, and the truth of their hearts, are truly only knowable, and redeemable by their creator.