Michael Jackson as racial unifier

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.

This morning's Montreal Gazette article by McGill University history professor Gil Troy speaks particularly eloquently to this point.

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.

[. . .]

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.

Go forth and read. Well done, Professor Troy.

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In all honestly the Beatles were the act who changed how pop music wrote, recorded, and even where we played music for example Shea Stadium. They were doing video's way back in 1966. The Beatles ability to marry studio experimentation with a strong pop song structure is such a profound influence. Tomorrow Never Knows," which sums up most of where music has gone. Minus the vocals, it's virtually an big beat/techno and modern electonic music. Today's music is mostly about sound texture and the group that got us thinking about it the most is the Beatles.

Please the Beatles sold over one albums but they broke up in 1970 and they are only behind Eminem as this decade's greatest albums sellers.

The Beatles are meaningless pablum for those with no appreciation for real music. Gallo sells a metric buttload of jug wine but that doesn't mean it is any good- just palatable to the masses.

By BikeMonkey (not verified) on 27 Jun 2009 #permalink

I'd say the video for beat is a good example of this.

The beatles re-introduced american blues to america, that is why it was so easy to have appeal once they arrived here. As far as Jackson goes, "crossover" is when a black artist has the ability to promote a sound to white listeneners as well as black. The beatles could not do this, because they are already white. The author of the article wants folks to notice that MTV refused to play blacks on its show. Jackson worked to overcome this with thriller, when it came out and fans went bezerk, MTV had to air it. Youtube thriller, its MTV's first black on air screening.

I think people forget how much the generation of Muddy Waters, Etta James, Chuck Berry etc crossed racial lines (to the point that the presence of 'negro records' was perceived as really threatening by many).

These were the people who crossed the barrier, and are responsible for both rock and hip-hop and its variants. Jackson was a creative individual, but I don't think he was that catalyist.

Perhaps I was unclear in the post but @Tosshi gets the point: the "resegregation" of American pop music in the 1970s and 1980s was the barrier I feel that Jackson broke.

I agree that Michael Jackson was a unifier. However, in this context what do you think the meaning of MJ's apparent desire to appear more "white" is? Do you think that the movement away from his "blackness" made him more acceptable to white audiences? Earlier examples of singers that crossed cultural lines (like Nina Simone) were considered "black singers" not singers. Less so with Michael Jackson and I don't think that this is because we've made a lot of progress. I still hear people say "African American doctor" and "lady doctor" all the time (and I have never once heard someone say "white, male doctor"). Although I suppose it is possible that the entertainment industry may be ahead of the curve on this issue.

(Note: It is my belief that "race" is a social construct. This is not to say that "race" is not real. A long and ongoing legacy of social injustice proves otherwise.)

By Catharine (not verified) on 29 Jun 2009 #permalink

Don't forget about Michael's contribution to license plates in the Garden State.