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For the past decade or so, it almost seemed like public displays of eccentricity were all there was to Michael Jackson, who unexpectedly died June 25. But there was a time when Jackson was thought of primarily as a groundbreaking artist, not a celebrity oddball.
That time was 1983, when Jackson’s omnipresence on the pop charts was revolutionary because no African-American artist had ever achieved that high a level of success. Jackson earned his pop icon status by creating music that transcended genres; he also redefined the roles of music videos and dancing in popular music.
No matter what else Jackson did (and he did a lot), his musical legacy will always rest on the album “Thriller.” That was Jackson’s landmark 1982 release that became the biggest-selling album of all time. It moved over 100 million copies and spawned six hit singles — unheard of at that time.
“Thriller’s” first single was the deceptively easygoing duet with Paul McCartney, “The Girl Is Mine.” Sure it sounds like a lounge ballad now, but since it showcased singers from different races pledging their love to a woman, its allusions to an interracial affair were pretty daring.
Jackson was just getting started breaking boundaries. The next two singles, “Billie Jean” and “Beat It,” brought both social consciousness and rock guitar to the dance floor. It was then that his career started to really explode. These songs both spent several weeks at No. 1 and broke MTV’s “color barrier” (the channel had previously refused to play African-American artists, claiming it was a “rock station”).
More hits followed, including “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” “Human Nature” and “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing).” Jackson had “Thriller’s” title track made into a long-form music video that modernized the medium, making it a more credible art form. White rock acts had dominated in the early 1980s, so when Jackson became the biggest “rock star” of all, he opened doors for artists who otherwise might have been marginalized.
A natural talent
Jackson was able to capture the public’s fancy because he had an almost frighteningly natural ability to sing. At age 11, he sang lead on the No. 1 songs “I Want You Back,” “ABC,” “The Love You Save” and “I’ll Be There” with more mastery and passion than most adult vocalists. Depending on the song, he could make his voice soar to evoke sensitivity or roar to conjure James Brown.
When disco arrived, Jackson was ready, leading his brothers through the adult-oriented hits “Dancing Machine,” “Enjoy Yourself” and “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground).” You can hear echoes of these records in Prince (whose first hit, “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” was a Jackson knockoff), the Bee Gees and Justin Timberlake.
Around 1978, Jackson and Quincy Jones formed a partnership that would give birth to the singer’s best-known solo efforts. Their first album together, 1979’s “Off the Wall,” delivered four Top 10 hits. Two of those, “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” and “Rock With You” went to No. 1 just as disco was dying, proving Jackson could again traverse genres. “Don’t Stop …” was also penned solely by Jackson, who was by now a first-rate songwriter.
By 1980, Jackson’s star had eclipsed that of his band, so the solo success of “Thriller” wasn’t totally unexpected. It was the Beatlemania scale of Jackson’s popularity that threw people. It also threw Jackson, who soon began showing signs of the eccentricity that would unfortunately come to define him.
That shouldn’t diminish the impact of “Thriller.” After millions of people watched Jackson moonwalk to “Billie Jean” in his March 1983 performance on the “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever” TV special, they were ready for performers who offered dance moves and wilder rhythms. Thus the stage was set for Prince and Madonna to break out nationally. Before Jackson, the only dance music MTV played was British. After “Thriller,” the channel embraced hip-hop and, eventually, rap.
It took a half decade for Jackson to return with 1987’s “Bad” album. Although it didn’t sell as much as “Thriller,” it had more No. 1 singles — five in all. Sadly, by this time people were paying less attention to the music (which cleverly blended rock and R&B), and were instead wondering why Jackson’s face kept changing so dramatically with each new album cover.
And yet Jackson soon became known as the “King of Pop.” The moniker was purportedly thought up by PR people, but like the Rolling Stones’ “world’s greatest rock ’n’ roll band” appellation, it stuck because there was truth to it. Jackson’s innovations might have slowed down, but his hits didn’t. The best of the later ones were the most wistful, like “Remember the Time” and “Will You Be There,” both of which seemed to expose the humanity behind Jackson’s showbiz façade.
Jackson’s unexpected death will no doubt reignite interest in the “tabloid fodder” aspects of his life. Like Elvis Presley, though, Jackson was far more than the sum of his eccentricities. He was a professional artist at an age when most people are in grade school. And he had already changed the course of music — and to a degree, society — at a stage of life when most people are just starting to make their mark on the world.
Tony Sclafani is a regular contributor to msnbc.com