This summer the world mourns the passing of an icon; the greatest living performer of all time: Michael Jackson – the last superstar. Enigma’s Hassan Hassan contemplates the lasting legacy of the musician, the maverick, and most importantly, the man.
The Thriller video changed my life. I watched it about 10 years after it first came out – and that says a lot about Michael Jackson’s staying power – but I still remember the first time I laid eyes on the 14-minute visual extravaganza. Immediately I got up and began to imitate him; forced my parents to buy me white socks and black loafers; and sported the Beat It jacket all through high school and the scorching desert weather.
Forget the allegations and forget the personal life. On the night of his death, when CNN broadcast a complete playlist of his songs – from his Jackson 5 years to the present day – the six people I was sitting with knew all the words. From I Want You Back to You Rock My World, every single lyric was recalled by six different people from six distinct generations. MTV & VH1 played his songs on loop; the world’s news channels forgot about war, death and destruction and dedicated themselves entirely to one man’s life story. HIStory. Facebook, Twitter and countless websites became fixated – and even crashed. Millions around the world flocked to the streets to pay their respects. Suddenly nothing but his music mattered. He was finally released from a lifetime of scathing media scrutiny and resumed his rightful place as the icon of our generation – perhaps all generations. The musical genius now ranks right up there with – and might even supersede – Sinatra, Elvis and Lennon.
Single handedly – clad in rhinestone studded glove – he changed the way music was made. He changed the way music was presented, changed fashions and most importantly obliterated racial boundaries. From Rock With You to Scream, he was the first to truly understand the power of the music video, reinventing the visual landscape with his boundless creativity.
The first Michael Jackson song I ever heard was a ballad he recorded as a teenager. Ben was a song he sang on one of his first solo records, an ode to a pet rat. The melody was haunting, his voice riveting and the whole thing was far beyond the years and capacity of any normal 14 year-old. You couldn’t doubt his talent and as Berry Gordy, the CEO of Motown Records said, “He was the consummate student. He studied the greats and then became greater.” Gordy and Smokey Robinson were both astounded by the emotion of this young boy and his ability to sing songs that were far beyond his years.
Off The Wall, his first solo record and the first record he worked on with Quincy Jones, revolutionised the industry. The riffs, the bass line, the sheer power of his voice, changed the way that pop music was made forever. With songs like Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough, he managed to create a sound nobody had ever heard before. Then Thriller came along. Everyone remembers the first time they saw the Thriller video. The 14- minute video was a shock to all your senses. Fear, lust, irony and almost every other emotion still sets the pace for videos today. From the dance moves to the singing to his acting, you couldn’t help but be enthralled. He followed up that video with Beat It, Smooth Criminal and Billie Jean; each video had an iconic image. The streets lighting up in Beat It, leaning forward at impossible angles in Smooth Criminal, all with patent shoes that were later trademarked. The album became the biggest selling album of all time and countless people grew up watching these videos, enthralled by his every infliction, mesmerised by the choreography. At one point or another you just had to give it a go. The cassette tape – remember this was the late 1980s – I owned was played so much I actually had to buy it three times. Shattering genres, he moulded hip-hop beats with rock riffs and pop music with a powerful soul spirit. His music and style were a right of passage, dancing like a zombie in your bedroom and screaming out in an attempt to get that infamous infliction that only he could master. To this day Thriller is still the most recognizable dance in the world, with films paying it homage and Filipino prisoners memorising it to a ‘T’.
But then the backlash began. Gone was the boy wonder, replaced by this eccentric man who was getting whiter and whiter, as his nose became smaller. He seemed to have a complete inability to function in the real world. Child molestation allegations, the strangest of rumours emerging from Neverland, stranger marriages and genetically impossible children did nothing to deter his fans. It was always about the music, how he presented it and his innate ability to remain very relevant without having to relinquish his core. Dangerous is testament to that. He managed to go with the times while remaining the one and only Michael Jackson. The Herb Ritts directed In the Closet was pure Michael but with the supermodel aesthetic that was worshipped in the early 90s. And who can forget Eddie Murphy, Imane, Magic Johnson and Shaquille O’Neal all taking part in the epic Remember the Time? The te re ra ra ra squeals in the end still send shivers down my spine today.
Michael Jackson always managed to just pull it off. Despite the eccentricities, despite the drama and the scandal, he always oozed cool. Justin Timberlake might be able to pull off a fedora, but if he ever attempted a rhinestone studded glove and a red leather jacket, well the effect would be slightly more on the insane than groundbreaking side. Forget the Beyonces or the Britney Spears of this world, as a performer, most contemporary celebrities pale in comparison to the prowess of Jackson. His concerts were mind blowing, filling up huge stadiums like nobody else could. This is what the world remembers, that is what the world is mourning. The irony of Jackson’s death is that the media – and the rest of the world – has finally understood the full force of his impact on music, fashion and… life.
As the media begins to slowly crack down this façade of a legend, what is left is the image of a man that was deeply vulnerable; a good father, a fantastic performer and at the core of everything, essentially just a little boy. What his death has done is make him human again. Millions across the globe now admit once and for all that this man may have been an eccentric, he may be the greatest living performer of all time, but he was also a mere mortal. In death he may have finally achieved his life-long dream of simply being understood. And he will be missed. This king of magic, of shock and awe, of drama and dazzle will always and forever remain the world’s King of Pop.
It was one of those moments that will go down in history. Three solid hours dedicated to one man. Fans slept on the streets from the night before, they flew in from all corners of the globe. From Barcelona to Beijing, Detroit to Delhi, people flocked to pay their respects to someone they’d never even met yet loved so intensely. The one and only musical genius: Michael Jackson. It was a rare live telecast that people watched knowing that nothing was rehearsed, yet everything was infused with a raw sense of grief, beyond censorship or planning. The tribute became a moment forever etched in people’s hearts and minds.
On stage many greats came out to pay respects; from a choked up Stevie Wonder, a somber Mariah Carey and an emotional Usher, who could barely finish his song. From the moment the casket was laid out in front of over 17,000 people in Los Angeles’ Staple Center, it was obvious that this was going to be a huge night; much like his performances in life. People from every single industry and walk of life spoke on his philanthropy, his kind and generous nature and how he shattered boundaries without ever meaning to. Berry Gordy said it best, “Michael Jackson went into orbit and never came down. Though it ended way too soon, Michael’s life was beautiful. Sure there were some sad times, but Michael Jackson accomplished everything he dreamed of.”
Yet nothing could have prepared the world for the sheer emotion felt from his family. And when his tearful daughter Paris, surrounded by her famous aunts and uncles, looked out at the audience and said, “Ever since I was born, daddy has been the best father you could ever imagine, and I just wanted to say I love him… so much,” the world seemed to stop. In that one powerful statement, his critics were silenced and Michael Jackson could finally rest in peace…