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.
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.
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.
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.