For those who can’t understand why some mourn the death of Michael Jackson, I think this explains it pretty well. The weird person he became isn’t so much mourned as the superstar he was, super stardom that was ushered in with his release of Billie Jean.
How Billie Jean changed the world
There are four kinds of pop stars: the ones that work hard at remaining cool and stylish and vaguely hip long after their careers have plateaued (David Bowie, James Brown, John Lennon, Cher); the ones that gracefully enter middle age and assume the role of living legend/elder statesman (Neil Young, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan); the ones who never understand that it is time to get off the stage (Paul McCartney, Rod Stewart); and the ones who simply lose their grip and drift off into the void (Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson). Members of the latter group often become so strange, so pathetic, so self-destructive that it is hard for people who come after them to believe that they were once colossi who ruled the world. But Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson were indeed colossi, and they did once rule the world.
For around seven years, Michael Jackson was the most luminous, powerful, influential star in the music business, and no one else was even close. During that period, before his bizarre antics and legal problems turned the public against him, Jackson enjoyed the kind of international fame experienced only by the likes of Muhammad Ali, Greta Garbo and Lord Byron. He was so famous that if you cut his fame in half he would still have been eight times as famous as the next most famous person, whoever that may have been. It may have been Tom Cruise.
All this began with the 1983 hit single Billie Jean. Though it may not sound like it today, Billie Jean is one of the most revolutionary songs in the history of popular music. This is not, however, because its lyrics tell the story of a well-meaning paranoid being stalked by a woman who claims that he has impregnated her, although that in itself was certainly an unusual theme for a pop song at the time. No, Billie Jean was groundbreaking because it introduced the idea that a single must be accompanied by a high-production video – preferably by someone who is a bit of a hoofer – thereby transforming a run-of-the-mill song release into an “event”. Billie Jean transformed MTV from a mere diversion for young people into a cultural institution that society at large paid attention to. It introduced the pasty-faced number-crunchers who ran MTV to the concept that white viewers would respond enthusiastically to videos featuring a black performer, something they had not previously believed. Back in those days, a lot of people in the entertainment business were still racists. Thank goodness that’s over.
Billie Jean’s greatest importance is that it launched the Michael Jackson era, a period in which the entire population of the planet made a group decision to follow the career of one star and one star only. This was an era in which a fabulously gifted performer like Prince was forced into a distant second-fiddle role, because even though Prince could dance, he couldn’t dance like Michael Jackson. Jackson’s all-encompassing appeal was something that had never happened before in the history of pop music: Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and the Beatles were preposterously famous in their time, but their appeal was still basically limited to white people. Michael Jackson, during his Thriller LP era, had everybody talking about him.