Michael Jackson excelled at many things: dance, promotion, song, fashion, showmanship. But the real meaning of his career transcends even these things.
Jackson was a bridge to today's world of instant global imaging. He midwived the contemporary "mash-up" culture, in which images, sounds, and objects from almost anywhere are clipped and recombined to make powerful, startling new things. Most important, his art mashed up the races and challenged social relations in music and world culture.
The 13-minute "Thriller" video of 1983 marked the real departure. Inspired by the 1981 flick An American Werewolf in London, Jackson enlisted director John Landis to make him a zombie and a werecat, leading other undead in a nightmare dance both stylish and creepy. The video made Jackson the first global multiplatform pop star, as famous for his moving image as for his music. Arguably the most famous person of his time, he supercharged the video era and helped create a new means of selling and spreading culture.
Jackson established the role of the modern cultural mash-up artist. He saw himself as the inheritor of great artists of the past. He cultivated close friendships with many boyhood heroes, including Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Elizabeth Taylor, and Fred Astaire (to whom he dedicated his 1988 memoir Moon Walk), and he appropriated symbols, moves, and even characters from their work.
His Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band-style jacket was a constant reference to the Beatles' breakthrough album of 1967, itself a cultural mash-up. His gangster persona in the "Smooth Criminal" video of 1988 combines Astaire, Cab Calloway, Bill Robinson, and the folk-hero gangsters of the John Dillinger era. In this brand-new culture, anything - a dance move by the Nicholas Brothers, a Beatles album, a refrain from Cameroonian singer Manu Dibango - could be blown apart and reassembled anew.
The ultimate target of this mash-up was race itself. Even his plastic surgeries and skin treatments - pigmentation disorder or no - split the differences among races, skin of shifting shades, European, African, and Asian hair and features. And it kept changing. His was not one look - it was a process.
He stamped these intentions indelibly on the 1991 "Black or White" video, an early example of video morphing in which all faces, all features, all origins, flow breathtakingly among one another, creating a dynamic river of human possibilities, as Jackson sings, "If you're thinking about being my brother / It don't matter if you're black or white," and rapper L.T.B. intones, "I'm not going to spend / My life being a color." It's a world of alternatives ever poised to switch places. Race and identity are liquid variations on a theme, not utterly distinct armed camps.
That sequence - part video, part song; the song itself, part pop, part rock (the overdriven guitar motif), part rap; the faces, one face and all faces - could stand for Jackson's career. What he established is now expected. Pop has never been the same, and neither have we. Like so much of what Michael Jackson did, it evoked much we had already seen - and showed us things we'd never seen before.
Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406, firstname.lastname@example.org, or twitter.com/jtimpane.