Michael Jackson's Unparalleled Influence

The greatest impact of the music video wasn't on music, but video. That is, on film and television. The generation that grew up watching '80s videos started making movies and TV shows in the '90s, using MTV's once-daring stylistic elements like quick cuts, vérité-style hand-helds, nonlinear narrative and heavy visual effects and turning them into mainstream TV and film movie conventions.

If Jackson had only been a great musician who also invented music video, he still wouldn't have mattered as much. Madonna, his only worthy heir, was almost as gifted at communicating an aesthetic on-screen. The aesthetic Jackson communicated, however, was much more powerful, liberating and globally resonant than hers. It was more powerful than what Elvis and Sinatra communicated, too. Hence, that whole "Most Influential Artist" thing.

American popular music has always been about challenging stereotypes and breaking down barriers. Throughout the century, be it in Jazz, Rock or Hip-Hop, black and white artists mixed styles, implicitly, and often explicitly, advocating racial equality. Popular music has always challenged sex roles, too. Top 40 artists especially, from Little Richard and proto-feminist Leslie Gore, to David Bowie, Madonna and Lady Gaga have pushed social progress by bending and breaking gender rules.

Jackson was clearly a tragic figure, and his well-documented childhood trauma didn't help. But his fatal flaw, and simultaneously the source of his immense power, was a truly revolutionary Romantic vision. Not Romantic in the sappy way greeting card companies and florists use the word, but in its older, Byronic sense of someone who commits their entire life to pursing a creative ideal in defiance of social order and even natural law. Jackson's Romantic ideal, learned as a child at Motown founder Berry Gordy's feet, was an Age of Aquarius-inspired vision using of pop music to build racial, sexual, generational and religious harmony. His twist, though, was a doozy.

He not only made art promoting pop's egalitarian ethos, but literally tried embody it. When that vision became an obsession, a standard showbiz plastic surgery addiction became something infinitely more ambitious—and infinitely darker. Jackson consciously tried to turn himself into an indeterminate mix of human types, into a sort of ageless arch-person, blending black and white, male and female, adult and child. He was, however, not an arch-person. He was just a regular person, albeit a supremely talented one, and time makes dust of every person, no matter how well they sing. Decades of throwing himself against this irrefutable wall of fact ravaged him, body then soul, and eventually destroyed him.

At his creative peak, though, it almost seemed possible. Michael could be absolutely anything he wanted; Diana Ross one day, Peter Pan and the next. Every breathtaking high note, every impossible dance-step and crazy costume projected the same message. There are no more barriers of race, sex, class or age, he told his audience. You, too, can be and do whatever you want. We are limited only by our power to dream. A performer who can make you believe that, to feel it, even for a moment, comes along once in a lifetime. Maybe. If you're lucky.

As years pass and history sanitizes his memory, Jackson's legend will only grow. One day, in addition to being the most influential artist of the 20th century, he may well topple Elvis become the most-impersonated as well. Jackson, after all, only died a year ago. Elvis has been gone since 1977. Another two or three decades and Michael might have the most impersonators from Bangkok and Brazil. Let's just hope that they don't take it too far.

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Hampton Stevens is a writer based in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, ESPN the Magazine, Playboy, Gawker, Maxim, and many more publications.

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