June 25, 2009

Michael Jackson, who died Thursday evening, won 13 Grammy Awards and sold 750 million albums. He was a music icon, but the extent to which people view him in this way may depend on how old they are.

I was just talking with a friend in his mid-30s who said he remembered the beginning of Jackson’s career: “Thriller.” “No,” I said, “You caught him in mid-stride. I remember him on ‘The Andy Williams Show.’ He was a 50-year-old who has been a star for more than 40 years.”

A teenager does not know a time when Jackson was not embroiled in controversy. A 20-something does not know a time when there was no such thing as MTV or music videos.

Jackson (along with Madonna and David Bowie) changed pop music in significant ways. He was the pioneer of highly produced music videos such as “Thriller,” “Beat It” and “Billie Jean.” Before Dec. 2, 1983, when “Thriller” was released, there were simply no other music videos like it. In 1964, The Beatles had “A Hard Day’s Night” movie that included a number of music segments that resemble what we now know as music videos. But there was no place for those videos on TV. 

Ezinearticles.com noted:

“MTV started broadcasting in 1981 in the USA and it marked the beginning of the music video’s ruling over the music industry. The first video ever played on MTV was ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ by The Buggles.”

Mostly, TV music videos were videos of bands playing or singers singing alone on a stage. Look at this collection of pre-“Thriller” music videos from VH1.

The video was 14 minutes long and cost an estimated half a million dollars. Showtime and MTV later aired an hourlong documentary on the making of the music video. Named the “Greatest Album Ever,” “Thriller” was certified platinum 28 times by the Recording Industry Association of America. The world’s best-selling album dominated a poll of MTV viewers, securing almost one-third of the total vote.

Quincy Jones, the producer of “Thriller,” told Entertainment Weekly:

“It was the very beginning of MTV, back when MTV wasn’t even playing black music. In a way, Michael and MTV rode each other to glory, in terms of establishing the format for videos. I still see every day, videos that were made last month that look just like the videos that he made 25 years ago. It’s amazing.”

Rock music critic Steven Rubio wrote:

“As many times as I’ve taught classes dealing with American popular culture, that’s how many times I’ve shown the video of Michael Jackson introducing the moonwalk while singing “Billie Jean” at the Motown 25th Anniversary show. Baby Boomers will tell you that the pinnacle of rock and roll television came when the Beatles first appeared on Ed Sullivan  and older fans might remember Elvis’s early TV performances. But for anyone old enough to remember, Michael Jackson’s moonwalk is right up there.

“It’s difficult to get across to students the full impact of Michael Jackson in the early ’80s. They’ve all grown up in a post-Michael world, they’ve seen the moonwalk a thousand times and Michael himself has gotten a bit weird over the years. And so students bring their preconceived notions of Michael Jackson to the table, and they don’t get the revolutionary nature of his work.”

After “Thriller,” Jackson was one of the biggest stars in the world. He later pulled together “We Are the World,” a song that included Tina Turner, Bruce Springsteen, Kenny Rogers and Bob Dylan. See a timeline of Jackson’s music video career.

Jackson also owned some of the most important music in rock history. He purchased a 50 percent share of Sony/ATV Music Publishing, which included rights to 259 songs written by former Beatles John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The New York Times reported:

“In 1985 Mr. Jackson paid $47.5 million for ATV, which included the Beatles songs — a move that estranged him from Paul McCartney — and 10 years later Mr. Jackson sold 50 percent of his interest to Sony for $90 million, creating a joint venture, Sony/ATV. Estimates of the value of the catalog exceed $1 billion.”

There were others who came before Jackson as activists of sorts: Peter, Paul and Mary; Bob Dylan; John and Yoko Lennon; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; and Pete Seeger all come to mind. 

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
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