Why Michael Jackson’s Biggest Success Was a Surprise

Since Fonda’s litany tidily summarizes the full range of contemporary American leisure activity, it is no wonder that Jackson is in the air everywhere. The pulse of America and much of the rest of the world moves irregularly, beating in time to the tough strut of Billie Jean, the asphalt aria of Beat It, the supremely cool chills of Thriller. Thriller has been on the Japanese charts for 65 consecutive weeks, and local teen idols are copying Michael’s moves and even singing some of his songs.

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Thriller is also South Africa’s top seller: “Jackson, you might say, bridges the apartheid gap,” muses one record executive. The Soviet press has, of course, denounced Jackson, and his fans cannot buy his records in any stores. But bootleg cassettes are swapped and treasured. Says one Soviet high school senior: “His music is electrifying. His beat is the music of today.”

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“Michael used to say, when he wrote, he’d write for everyone,” says his mother Katherine, “even though the music business would list it as rhythm and blues because of him being black.” The combined evidence of the bottom line, the hard listen and the long view is difficult to resist: Jackson is the biggest thing since the Beatles. He is the hottest single phenomenon since Elvis Presley. He just may be the most popular black singer ever.

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This success is a matter of moment simply because, as Jones says, “it has never happened to a black performer.” Before anyone declares a three-day holiday on behalf of brotherhood, it ought to be pointed out that, inevitably, the qualities that make Jackson’s music so accessible also divert it from expectations of what popular black music ought to be. Those expectations, however, do not invariably come from the same source as the music. Rock critics (who are mostly white) liked Thriller well enough and wrote respectfully of it when it was released in December 1982, but they were as surprised as record-company executives (who are mostly white) when the album started burning its way into the country’s collective musical consciousness. The fine points of what Thriller might have been, and was not, seemed petty to the audiences (mostly young) who gave the record its initial push, who hip-hopped to it in clubs and break-danced to it in the streets this past summer. The message is obvious anyway: soul is for sharing, not segregating.

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When Jackson died in 2009, Thriller was still remembered by many as a high point in his career — and one that proved that he would never again be overlooked by music critics. “For Generation X the magic is partly nostalgic; everyone between the ages of 35 and 45 remembers exactly where they were when they heard ‘Beat It’ for the first time,” wrote TIME’s Richard Corliss in his remembrance of the pop idol. “But as a piece of music, it remains the greatest pop album of all time.”

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