Michael Jackson was the most influential artist of the 20th century. That might sound shocking to sophisticated ears. Jackson, after all, was only a pop star. What about the century's great writers like Fitzgerald and Faulkner? What about visual artists, like Picasso and Dali, or the masters of cinema from Chaplin to Kubrick? Even among influential musicians, did Michael really matter more than the Beatles? What about Louis Armstrong, who invented jazz, or Frank Sinatra, who reinvented it for white people? Or Elvis Presley, who did the same with blues and gospel, founding rock in the process? Michael Jackson is bigger than Elvis? By a country mile.
First, there is no question that musicians in the 20th century had far more cultural impact than any other sort of artist. There is no such thing, for instance, as a 20th-century painter that is more famous than an entertainer like Sinatra. There are no filmmakers or movie stars that had more cultural sway than The Beatles, and no 20th-century writers who touched more lives than Elvis. Consider that thousands of human beings, from Bangkok to Brazil, make their living by pretending to be Elvis Presley. When was the last time you saw a good impression of Picasso? Even Elvis, though, is overshadowed by Jackson's career.
First, with the possible exception of Prince and Sammy Davis Jr., Michael Jackson simply had more raw talent as a performer than any of his peers. But the King of Pop reigns as the century's signature artist not just because of his exceptional talent, but because he was able to package that talent in a whole new way. In both form and content, Jackson simply did what no one had done before.
Louis Armstrong, for instance, learned music as a live performer and adapted his art for records and radio. Sinatra and Elvis were also basically live acts who made records, ultimately expanding that on-stage persona into other media through sheer force of charisma. The Beatles were a hybrid; a once-great live band made popular by radio and TV, forced by their own fame to become rock's first great studio artists.
Jackson, though, was something else entirely. Something new. Obviously he made great records, usually with the help of Quincy Jones. Jackson's musical influence on subsequent artists is simply unavoidable, from his immediate followers like Madonna and Bobby Brown, to later stars like Usher and Justin Timberlake.
Certainly, Jackson could also electrify a live audience. His true canvas, though, was always the video screen. Above all, he was the first great televisual entertainer. From his Jackson 5 childhood, to his adult crossover on the Motown 25th anniversary special, to the last sad tabloid fodder, Jackson lived and died for on TV. He was born in 1958, part of the first generation of Americans who never knew a world without TV. And Jackson didn't just grow up with TV. He grew up on it. Child stardom, the great blessing and curse of his life, let him to internalize the medium's conventions and see its potential in a way that no earlier performer possibly could.
The result, as typified by the videos for "Thriller," "Billie Jean," and "Beat It," was more than just great art. It was a new art form. Jackson turned the low-budget, promotional clips record companies would make to promote a hit single into high art, a whole new genre that combined every form of 20th century mass media: the music video. It was cinematic, but not a movie. There were elements of live performance, but it was nothing like a concert. A seamless mix of song and dance that wasn't cheesy like Broadway, it was on TV but wildly different from anything people had ever seen on a screen.
The oft-repeated conventional wisdom—that Jackson's videos made MTV and so "changed the music industry" is only half true. It's more like the music industry ballooned to encompass Jackson's talent and shrunk down again without him. Videos didn't matter before Michael, and they ceased to matter at almost the precise cultural moment he stopped producing great work. His last relevant clip, "Black or White," was essentially the genre's swan song. Led by Nirvana and Pearl Jam, the next wave of pop stars hated making videos, seeing the entire format, and the channel they aired on, as tools of corporate rock.