Remembering The King Of Pop, Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson: Full NPR Music Archive

Michael Jackson i i

Michael Jackson performs on stage during the 2006 World Music Awards at Earls Court. Dave Hogan/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Dave Hogan/Getty Images
Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson performs on stage during the 2006 World Music Awards at Earls Court.

Dave Hogan/Getty Images

Michael Jackson died Thursday of cardiac arrest at the age of 50. As the young frontman of the Jackson 5, Jackson was a star at an incredibly young age, racking up an amazing string of number one hits in the early 1970s. But in television as in the recording industry, Jackson made his biggest impact, and his most significant contributions, once he went solo.

The year was 1983. MTV had launched two years earlier, and it's difficult to remember, or imagine, how different a network it was back then. Not only did it play nothing but music videos, 24 hours a day, but it played music videos only by white artists. The performer who broke MTV's unofficial blacklist — or whitelist — was Jackson, whose song and video for "Billie Jean" was simply too catchy too ignore. He danced lighting up squares on the floor with every step, and MTV — and a superstar — was born.

"Billie Jean" was the first blow of a two-pronged attack on MTV. "Beat It," which borrowed its imagery from a gang street fight in "West Side Story," became another number one hit for Jackson two months later. And that same month, March 1983, Jackson appeared on a live NBC entertainment special honoring the 25th anniversary of Motown Records, the label on which the Jackson 5 had recorded. He reunited with his brothers and sang that night, but he also made a solo appearance that remains one of the most electrifying star turns in TV history. While performing "Billie Jean," he introducing a new dance move he had concocted for the occasion — a backwards-gliding step he called the moonwalk.

Viewers went crazy, critics raved and even Fred Astaire phoned Jackson the next day to offer his praise: "You are incredible," Astaire told him. "You are a hell of a mover."

Not even Madonna, who became a pop star later that year because of a string of sexy videos, could unseat Jackson as MTV's biggest, most influential artist. Thriller, the album from which he drew an unprecedented number of hits, sold an absurd number of copies. By the time Jackson bestowed upon himself the title the King of Pop, there was no denying it. Throughout the 1980s, he used his clout, and his talent, to make one ornate music video after another, strengthening MTV's appeal as well as his own. Say the titles of Jackson's hits, and you're likely to remember the images as quickly as the music: "Bad," "The Way You Make me Feel," "Dirty Diana," "Black or White."

But if Jackson's biggest contribution to live TV was his "Billie Jean" moonwalk, his greatest contribution to all TV history was his 1984 music video for "Thriller." Directed by John Landis of National Lampoon's Animal House, it was the longest single-song music video ever made — a record I believe it still holds. It had a story line which made it a mini-movie, and a well-rehearsed, inventively presented dance sequence — featuring Michael Jackson and the other dancers as a group of choreographed zombies — that has become positively iconic.

And who can forget Michael's confession to his girl at the start of "Thriller," just before he transformed?

More recently, Michael Jackson's TV history has been more tabloid coverage than music appreciation — a baby on a balcony, a creepy prime-time interview, lawsuits involving underage boys and so on. But now, with his death, all those images, all those stories, are folded together.

Yesterday and today, while most networks covering Jackson's death were using his music videos only as a visual backdrops to interviews, MTV did something different. It checked in with other celebrities, too, but MTV spent most of its time just playing Michael Jackson's massive library of music videos and live performances. On CNN, MSNBC and elsewhere, you could hear about what made Michael Jackson such a pop-culture icon, but on MTV, you could witness it all over again.

David Bianculli blogs at TVWorthWatching.com.

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