Any attempts at stating how culturally significant and impactful Michael Jackson is will be futile, but I’ll try anyway. Michael Jackson is unarguably the most influential pop-culture figure of the 20th century. Be it Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Sammy Davis Jr., Ray Charles or Bob Dylan, no one has whipped up as much hysteria as Michael Jackson. Throughout his career, right from the 1979 release of Off the Wall to becoming a fixture in tabloid media, Michael Jackson captured the attention of millions across the globe. Be it China during the pro-democracy protests, South Africa post-apartheid, or India right after economic liberalization, Michael Jackson cut across barriers of language, culture, traditions and even social injustices and inequalities.
The King of Pop possessed so much raw talent that it was impossible for the world to not take notice. People everywhere recognized him. It didn’t matter who you were, what language you spoke, how much money you had or what your age was; when you watched Michael Jackson on TV, you instantly fell in love. Michael Jackson revolutionized entertainment for good. The music video as we know today wouldn’t have existed — at least not in its current form — if not for Michael Jackson. He took the visual medium and turned it into mesmerising art.
Charting Michael Jackson’s influence is a tough task. His career spawned a long trail of chart-topping songs. As Thriller turns 35, we take a look at six songs by the King of Pop that have become immortal and have had an unending impact on popular music.
‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough’ (Off the Wall, 1979)
This was the first track that Michael Jackson had complete creative control over. It was also the first track on the album Off the Wall. ‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough’ set the precedent for dance tracks for decades to come. A blockbuster hit, the song opens with Jackson’s spoken words and eventually breaks into an unstoppable dance medley. The song was also the first to introduce Jackson’s iconic falsetto and vocal hiccups; elements that went on to become his signature style. Its disco-funk sound, infectious beats, and an elaborate horn section was just the energy that the 80s required. The sound that Michael Jackson popularized with this track has lived and thrived, even in the 2010s. Be it Usher, Chris Brown or The Weeknd, ‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough’ formulated a clam-yet-tantalizing groovy sound that we hear all the time.
‘Billie Jean’ (Thriller, 1982)
If you have ever heard Michael Jackson’s music — and we all have — then you have definitely come across ‘Billie Jean’. One of the most well-known songs Jackson ever performed, ‘Billie Jean’ had an impact that has remained unmatchable. Part of Thriller, ‘Billie Jean’ propelled Jackson to global stardom. The song was an instant hit and was the first music video by a black artist to receive heavy rotation on MTV. In fact, MTV — back then a relatively new channel — garnered a huge amount of attention as a result of the music video. Jackson, jumping and landing on his toes as the tile beneath his feet lights up, is an iconic sight. The track’s slow, bass-heavy beat coupled with lively funk showcased Jackson’s youthful exuberance as well as the paranoia reflected in the lyrics. The track became a worldwide dance hit and introduced elements which have become inseparable from pop-culture, such as the moonwalk and wearing a single white sequined glove.
‘Beat It’ (Thriller, 1982)
Michael Jackson, while writing and composing Thriller, wanted a rock anthem of his own. Jackson singing a rock ‘n roll track would’ve been amazing; and it absolutely was. ‘Beat It’ became another of his most recognized track. The guitar riff at the beginning can be identified by music fans in any corner of the world. ‘Beat It’ continued in the tradition of making compelling, plot-driven music videos. Jackson espoused the idea of music and dance bridging gaps, no matter how violent those gaps may seem. ‘Beat It’ fused the dance and rock genres — something not very frequently done in the 80s. The guitar solo, often considered to be one of the most well-known solos ever, was played by Eddie Van Halen. The Van Halen guitarist performed the solo for free and never expected it to become one of his most prominent pieces of guitar work. ‘Beat It’ has inspired numerous artists to fuse genres, like rap with metal or dance with shock-rock, and has been covered by multiple musicians over the years.
‘Bad’ (Bad, 1987)
By the time Bad was released, Jackson was already a global sensation. His previous two albums were smash hits. The only way for Jackson was forward. He, along with producer Quincy Jones, were aiming to expand his sound and lyrical themes. On Bad, we got a Michael Jackson who was much more aggressive and had tension infused into his lyrics and sound. The title track ‘Bad’ was written after Jackson read an article about an African-American student who left the inner city to attend a largely white school and was killed on his visit home. Jackson was obsessed with Prince around the same time and wanted to cement his place as the only King of Pop. The result was the title track ‘Bad’. The seething delivery, mouth-percussion part by Jackson, and an organ solo by jazz great Jimmy Smith made this song a solo showcase. The full music video for ‘Bad’ is an 18-minute-long short movie directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Richard Price.
‘Black or White’ (Dangerous, 1991)
‘Black or White’ was a true extravaganza. Released in 1991, the song was one of the most anticipated releases in the history of modern music. Its music video, remembered for Macaulay Culkin playing the lead role, was made with the aim of spreading the message of equality and harmony. ‘Black or White’ was to be a dance-rock track with elements of hard-rock. The main guitar riff was an instant classic. The music video premiered across the world and portrayed multiculturalism. It urged people to find beauty in diversity. Michael Jackson wanted to make memorable and positive music and it was a feat he surely achieved with ‘Black or White’.
‘They Don’t Care About Us’ (HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I, 1996)
When Michael Jackson decided to shoot the music video for ‘They Don’t Care About Us’ in a slum in Brazil, the government authorities of the country were skeptical. They were sure that it would send out a negative image of Brazil. Poverty in the area didn’t make it an ideal location for a Michael Jackson video. But Jackson thought otherwise. The whole point of the song was that “they don’t really care about us”. This “us” were everyone in the slum in Brazil, and everyone facing injustice around the world. Michael Jackson had turned his attention to police brutality, government inefficiency, suppression of human rights and indiscriminate inequality. An incredibly catchy and innovative song, ‘They Don’t Care About Us’ wasn’t his greatest hit but definitely one of his most ambitious creations. Jackson collaborated with the cultural music group Olodum from the city of Salvador and incorporated the heavy beat of samba-reggae music. Used as a protest song during the Black Lives Matter movement, the song’s impact will last for decades.