If you’re too young to remember 1983, it’s difficult to comprehend just how massive Michael Jackson was as an entertainer. Before the sad spiral of plastic surgeries, child molestation allegations, sham marriages and the freak show his life became, Michael Jackson was the biggest thing in the Western Hemisphere. And he ruled 1983 like the Beatles ruled 1964, or like the Bee Gees ruled 1978.
If you’re too young to remember 1983, it’s difficult to comprehend just how massive Michael Jackson was as an entertainer.
Before the sad spiral of plastic surgeries, child molestation allegations, sham marriages and the freak show his life became, Michael Jackson was the biggest thing in the Western Hemisphere. And he ruled 1983 like the Beatles ruled 1964, or like the Bee Gees ruled 1978.
You couldn’t escape him. And there wasn’t anything he couldn’t do.
The recording that made it all happen was “Thriller,” a nine-song collection released in late 1982 that spawned a ridiculous seven hit singles.
For the record, my teenaged self got mighty tired of Michael Jackson after a while. “Thriller” overstayed its welcome deep into 1984. Minor songs became smash singles — notably, the gawd-awful duet with Paul McCartney, “The Girl Is Mine,” with its atrocious chorus “The doggone girl is mine” and (gulp) spoken part. You couldn’t even drink Pepsi without seeing his face.
But here’s why Michael Jackson ruled all he surveyed.
“Billie Jean”: Led off by a funky, minor key bass line and piercing synthesizer notes, “Billie Jean” was a rare dance hit at the height of new wave and the rise of heavy metal, both of which conspired to kill disco. Kids wanted to get on the dance floor again.
“Beat It”: It seems impossible to believe now, given hip-hop’s dominance of the pop charts, but during its first couple of years, MTV was primarily the domain of white rock ’n’ rollers. Along came Jackson, who was savvy enough to get Eddie Van Halen to record a hard rock guitar riff and make the heavy metal kids care about an R&B song — and open up MTV’s airwaves to other black artists.
“Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever”: The made-for-TV event, which looked back at a quarter century of music released by Motown Records, is best remembered as the day Jackson launched the moonwalk. Every kid in my high school tried to replicate the illusion of floating Jackson pulled off in penny loafers. Jackson sang and danced — none of this lip-synching while doing the more intricate dance moves that we see today from lesser talents.
He made other people famous. If you believe the hype (and I don’t), R&B singer Rockwell earned his recording contract (the fact that he was Motown head Berry Gordy’s son notwithstanding). But Rockwell couldn’t sing. At all. So Jackson sang the chorus of “Somebody’s Watching Me” (the melody now used in commercials for Geico) and the song went to No. 2.
“Thriller” was so huge that Jackson gave his brothers — most of whom hadn’t had a hit since Michael split from the Jackson Five to go solo — one more major concert tour in the mid-1980s and a couple more hit singles.
“Thriller” was so huge that, in the crazy lineup of pop stars gathered as USA For Africa to record the fundraising single “We Are the World,” only Jackson got two solos (filling in for the AWOL Prince).
“Thriller” was so huge that there was almost nothing Jackson could do to top it.
Except get increasingly weird. Despite recording huge hits well into the 1990s, his bizarre personal life (almost dropping the baby, French-kissing Lisa Marie Presley, the ever-shrinking nose) made more news during the past 15 years than his music. The last time many people cared about Jackson was when the not guilty verdict came down in his child molestation trial in 2005.
But no one has dominated pop culture through sheer force of talent since Michael Jackson in the mid-1980s. It’s hard to imagine that anyone ever will.
Brien Murphy can be reached at (217) 788-1515 or firstname.lastname@example.org.