Upon learning of music superstar Michael Jackson’s death, legions of fans around the world gathered to remember the self-proclaimed King of Pop, singing his songs and imitating his iconic moonwalk. Jackson spent four decades in the public spotlight: lately, as much for his legal battles as for his songwriting and vocal talents. Emmett Price, chair of the African-American studies department and associate professor of music, discusses Jackson’s lasting impact on our culture and his place in music history.
Jackson sold more than 750 million albums over a nearly four-decade career. Where does he rank among music’s all-time greats?
As a child sensation, he captivated audiences of all ages. As a young man, he worked hard to develop his vocal skills, his songwriting technique and his innovative approach to dance. As a mature artist, he internalized social ills and the unjust and inhumane treatment of others while publicly offering solutions filled with political critique, demands for social justice and cries for peace. Add it all up and you can see that Michael Jackson is one of the most profound, prolific and provocative cultural icons of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Jackson’s concept videos for songs such as “Billy Jean,” “Beat It” and “Thriller” were said to revolutionize the music video industry. Why haven’t more artists been able to duplicate Jackson’s success?
Michael Jackson was what I like to call a “champion of possibilities.” He did what most would deem impossible and he did it in grand fashion. From his acting in “The Wiz,” to music soundtracks, to philanthropy and social movements, to the creation of Captain EO and the Neverland Ranch, Jackson was a forward thinker who achieved and kept moving forward. Even in the midst of great cynicism, tremendous scrutiny and in the line of utter hatred, he continued to push the envelope of creation in a direction previously unchartered.
From the early ’90s onward, Jackson’s legal battles dominated the headlines, while the attention given to his music receded. Some may have wondered whether his off-stage troubles diminished his popularity, but the public’s reaction to his death seems to say otherwise.
Michael Jackson’s death reveals the irony and schizophrenic nature of the American conscience through the lens of media. Alive, he was one of the most hated and despised individuals to walk the earth, but we loved his music. In death, he is one of the most loved, cherished, admired individuals to have walked the earth, and now we really love his music. This has more to do with the deceptive practices of the media than it has to do with Jackson himself. The over-sensationalized coverage by the media created a situation where even he could not effectively speak for himself. Unfortunately, in his death, his tremendous legacy is overshadowed by the constant media coverage of his private struggles.
Jackson was the first black pop star to gain fame on MTV. What did this mean to the African-American community?
Every now and then we are blessed by the presence of one who makes a definitive contribution to the greater good of humanity. Jackson bridged differences by focusing on humanity, justice, peace and the greater force of love. His overall message illuminates the fact that, although there are many things about each of us that are different, we have much more in common. The Black community, in all of our diversity, recognizes Jackson as an example of what our young boys and girls can be when we peel back the thick skin of racism, hatred, prejudice and systematic oppression and nurture the greatness that lies within.
Which one of his albums has been your favorite and why?
Like many in my generation who grew up alongside Michael and watched his transformation from the little guy in the Jackson 5 to his rise to solo stardom, the amazing recording that came from the partnership of Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones, “Off the Wall,” will forever be the one that did what it did for me. This was and will remain a musical and cultural classic. With songs written by Jackson, Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney, and with musicians on the album such as Larry Carlton, George Duke, Greg Phillinganes and Larry Watson, this is one of the greatest albums ever because it has message, movement, mood, mystique and musical mastery.