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Michael Jackson once stated, The greatest education in the world is watching the masters at work. That was what Michael was-The Master of Pop. And he was right. One of the best ways to learn was watching the master at work, as Michael Jackson had one of the largest influences in the entertainment industry. Without the influence of Michael, the R&B and Hip Hop industry would not have had the artists or music that it has today. Known as the one of the best entertainers of all time, Michael Jackson is the most decorated pop artist. He was a pioneer in the music industry, thanks to his innovative music, choreography, and music videos. Michael Jackson revolutionized what it means and takes to be a pop star, making his mark not only in the music industry, but in popular culture as well.
It was in Gary, Indiana, on August 29, 1958, where the 7th child of 9, Michael Joseph, was born into the Jackson family. At just 5 years old, Michael began his music career as the lead singer of the Jackson 5, a band that consisted of Michael and his four brothers. After playing at local bars and clubs in Gary, Indiana, the Jackson 5 got an audition with famous Motown Records. At Motown Records, the Jackson 5 had great success, having their first four singles, I Want You Back, ABC, The Love You Save, and I’ll Be There, reach number one on the charts (The Biography of Michael Jackson). In 1975, the newly named group, The Jacksons, had many more hit singles and recorded 6 albums within the span of 8 years.
It was in 1980 when Michael was awarded his first Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance, due to a great start to his solo career. As we all know, those were not Michael’s only hits and awards as a solo artist.
In 1982, Michael released the album that launched him into superstar status, the famous Thriller. On the album were the songs, Thriller, Beat It, and Billie Jean. All three of these songs are not only known as some of MJ’s most famous hits, but they all had such an immense impact, they changed the music industry forever. It was not just the songs that catapulted them to hits, but the creativity in the music videos and choreography Thriller will forever be known as one of the greatest albums ever released, as seven of the nine songs became Top 10 hits. Stephen Erlewine, from AllMusic.com, states why Thriller was so success. He writes:
“This was a record that had something for everybodyâ€¦by adding harder funk, hard rock, softer ballads, and smoother soul-expanding the approach to have something for every audience. That alone would have given the album a good shot at a huge audience, but it also arrived precisely when MTV was reaching its ascendancy, and Jackson helped the network by being not just its first superstar, but first black star as much as the network helped him” (AllMusic.com).
All three of these songs had a significant part popular culture, and helped make Michael Jackson’s mark in music industry. Below, I will analyze the song’s musical characteristics based on why the songs had become such tremendous hits, the history and song meaning behind the lyric, and how the song performed on the charts in the past and present. Michael is not just a leader, but the leader, and by analyzing the songs Thriller, Beat It, and Billie Jean, it is very easy to tell how he became such an international superstar and forever musical legend.
On February 14, 1983, the album’s third single was released, Beat It. Michael wanted to write a rock song that could be enjoyed by kids of all ages. To help achieve the feeling of a rock song, the song’s producer, Quincy Jones, brought in famous guitarist, Eddie Van Halen, to perform a guitar solo on the song. During the 1980’s, the media was flooded with gang related violence, which fueled the lyrics. Beat It is about anti-violence in gangs, stating to be about bravery to not join in and defeat the violence. At the start of the song, Beat It’s introductory deep, slow beats are symbolic of the tension between rival gangs, which is expressed in the music video. After the low chimes end, a single beat comes through, grabbing the listener’s attention. Soon after the beat is dropped, the guitar’s notes enter the song and has the listener hooked. What the listener hears next is Michael’s short, staccato notes that are mixed with the strong, robust lyrics that make Beat It such a powerful rock song.
With the trio working together to produce Beat It, it was the first of its kind. “With Eddie Van Halen playing a solo guitar piece on the track, Michael writing the track, and Quincy Jones producing it, it was said to be a pioneer in black rock music” (Michael Jackson Timeline). Beat It had great success on the charts, as the hit went platinum in 1989, and sold over 668,000 copies (Michael Jackson Timeline). Michael won many awards for Beat It, some of which include two Grammy’s, Record of the Year and Best Rock Vocal Performance, and two AMA’s. Beat It was also placed in the 337th spot on the list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time by Rolling Stone Magazine. As if that was not enough success for the pop artist, Michael became one of the first artists to accomplish having two hit singles, Beat It and Billie Jean, on the Top 5 Charts (Michael Jackson Timeline).
Not only was the song popular, but the music video too. Beat It was inspired by the musical, West Side Story, where two rival gangs were fighting. In the video, the majority of the dancers were real gang members, used to authenticate the tension in the video (MJWN). Michael’s position in the video is bringing the gangs together through dance, hinting at the title name to stop the violence. The music video became famous for three specific reasons, “highlighting the black youth, the dangers on the streets, and dancing” (Michael Jackson Timeline).
In 1984, one of the most popular songs of all time, Thriller was the 7th released single from the album. Fearsome elements were applied to Thriller, used to enhance the lyrics that are about creatures of night that haunt humans. Sound effects such as, slamming doors, moans, howling dogs, and creaks, were added to create more of a dramatic effect to the song. After the creepy sound effects start the song, the beat and instrumentals build up the anticipation to the frightening lyrics. The fearsome elements are continued throughout the song and in between the breaks of verses to uphold the theme of the spooky song. The platinum hit also features the voice of Vincent Price, an actor famous for his work in horror films, who is the person behind the creepy voice on the track that raps and narrates (Song Facts).
More famous than the song, the music video was the very first of its kind. At 14 minutes long, and known more as a short film, Thriller “â€¦ is one of the most popular [music videos] ever. It started the trend of group dance scenes in pop videos” (Song Facts). The website, Songfacts.com, states why the music video was so important to the success of the song stating, “At the time, Michael Jackson was one of the least frightening people on Earth, so the video had to sell it.” To ensure the video was made properly, John Landis, who was famous for directing horror films, was brought in to direct Thriller. The music video had tremendous success, as, it was named the number one music video of all time by VH1 and won Best Performance Video, Best Choreography, and Viewers Choice at the first ever MTV Video Music Awards in 1984 (Song Facts). The music video had such success, Michael sold the rights in 2009 for Thriller to become a Broadway play. Thriller forever changed the music industry, as it fused together filmmaking and music, making it the best music video of all time. àNEED TO DESCRIBE MUSIC VIDEO IN DETAIL?!
Billie Jean was the second single released off of Thriller. The song’s producer, Quincy Jones, did not want Billie Jean to be on the album, as he thought it was too weak of a single because of the bass line, which is the quality that made Billie Jean famous (Song Facts). It is questioned what the true meaning of the lyric is, but Jackson states, “Billie Jean is kind of anonymous. It represents a lot of girls. They used to call them groupies in the ’60’s. â€¦I wrote this out of experience with my brothers when I was little. There were a lot of Billie Jeans out there. Every girl claimed that their son was related to one of my brothers” (MTV). Billie Jean is considered to be one of the most innovative songs, as it is an extremely complex. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Producer Antonio Reid stated, “Billie Jean is the most important record he’s made, not only because of its commercial success but because of the musical depth of the record. It has more hooks in it than anything I’ve ever heard. Everything in that song was catchy and every instrument was playing a different hook. You could separate it into 12 different musical pieces, and I think you’d have 12 different hits” (Song Facts). Billie Jean starts off with beats of the drum, which then allows for the distinct bass line to enter the song after four bars. Michael begins to sing quietly in falsetto, using a finger-snap as a rhythm during the chorus and verses. Violins and other string instruments are used after Michael rejects to being the father, to add drama to the denial of the child (Music Notes). Because Billie Jean was so popular with audiences, it was reworded to be used as Pepsi’s new jingle, entitled Pepsi Generation. In a poll, where the voters were listeners, Billie Jean was voted BBC Radio 2’s best Dance Record of All Time, and in Sony Ericsson’s poll was voted the world’s third favorite song. Billie Jean was also nominated the 6th greatest pop song since 1963 by the Rolling Stone and MTV (Song Facts).
The website, SongFacts.com, describes Michael’s creative music videos best when stating, “The video showcased Jackson’s signature dance moves that he became famous for. His talents as a dancer helped make him a huge concert draw and star on MTV. He made dance moves as big part as singing” (Song Facts). Billie Jean’s music video was not only groundbreaking in creativity and choreography, but because of what it meant for black artists. “This broke the color barrier on MTV. It was the first video by a black artist to get regular airplay on the channel” (Song Facts). Michael paved the way for black artists, making him an idol to many. The idea for the video game Dance Dance Revolution was inspired by the famous scene in Billie Jean, where Michael Jackson steps on squares that light up different colors (Song Facts). At the turn of the century, MTV and TV Guide Channel listed Billie Jean as the 35th greatest video of all time.
The moonwalk, the high-pitched “OW”, and the famous crotch grab, all make on name come to mind-Michael Jackson. He was a pioneer on the dance floor, in the studio, and for black artists. He was an inspiration to many, as he was the founder of the importance of choreography, showing the importance of having the “total package” as a music artist. The songs Billie Jean, Thriller, and Beat It, all aided in Thriller’s immeasurable success by contributing innovative lyrics, choreography, and music videos. Thriller currently remains the best selling album of all time, selling between 75 and 110 million copies worldwide. Stephen Erlewine, of AllMusic.com, states, “â€¦but nothing could have prepared Michael Jackson for Thriller. Nobody could have prepared anybody for the successes of Thriller, since the magnitude of its success was simply unimaginable.”
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