As is half the world, I was reflecting today on the realities of Michael Jackson’s contribution not just to music but to society as well.
What is true, and is not at all melodrama, is that Michael Jackson was one of the greatest talents in popular music – 750 million albums sold worldwide is beyond my comprehension. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, he was an incredible contributor to racial crossovers in musical styles. Just as Elvis Presley introduced gospel and blues to white folks, Jackson will be cited (and already has been) for cultivating R&B among white listeners and performers. I’d go so far as to say that we wouldn’t have suburban white kids posing as rappers and hip-hop stars if not for the musical diplomacy of Michael Jackson.
Long after we forget Michael Jackson’s degeneration and demise, we should remember how he helped heal America. Jackson used his celebrity to blur the lines between black and white, as well as between gay and straight.
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Jackson was an amazing dancer and an even better businessman. He choreographed the release of his 1982 album Thriller to undermine what the Washington Post called “the cultural apartheid of MTV and pop radio.” Rock and roll had become resegregated since the 1950s. MTV was overwhelmingly white. On radio, “rock and roll” was usually white; “R and B,” rhythm and blues, usually black.
Defying pigeonholing, Jackson’s enticing rhythms had great crossover appeal. Still, to ford the gap when marketing Thriller, Jackson first released This Girl is Mine, a playful duet with the Beatle great Paul McCartney. This pairing created “a Trojan horse to force white radio’s hand,” Steve Greenberg, the president of S-Curve Records, later explained.