Michael Jackson’s musical legacy, or, what if Thriller hadn’t sold?

What if Thriller had only sold moderately? And what if Michael Jackson had then retired?

Why do I ask these questions? Because one thing that has disappointed me about the coverage of Michael Jackson’s death to date is that I haven’t heard anyone seriously discuss his musical legacy as music. The undercurrent (and often the overcurrent) of the coverage is that the grief is because of Michael Jackson’s huge cultural impact. That’s no doubt true, but people are also mourning the loss of a brilliant artist.

In this piece, I hope to demonstrate that Michael Jackson’s music was respected as much more than just catchy pop songs before Michael Jackson, the kid from the Jackson 5 gone solo, became Michael Jackson, the cultural icon. In doing so, I want to show that he would have had a significant legacy among music lovers even without all the trappings.

To make my case, I draw on some outside sources from before Thriller became the biggest-selling album of all time. My sources are The New Rolling Stone Record Guide from 1983 (Thriller was released at the tail end of 1982), and critic Robert Christgau of the Village Voice, who has most of his original reviews posted at his website.

The Jackson 5

The Jackson 5 were on Motown records, and, with few exceptions, Motown albums were made with a hits-and-filler approach, so the anthologies are what are important here.

Rolling Stone gives both anthologies available in 1983 five stars, its highest rating. Robert Christgau isn’t quite as impressed, grading one, Anthology, a B+, and the other, Greatest Hits, an A-. Nevertheless, he singles out “I Want You Back,” “ABC,” and “The Love You Save,” as “three of the greatest radio ups ever,” and calls “Never Can Say Goodbye” and “I’ll Be There” “good ones [ballads].”

Five stars? Three of the greatest ever? A pretty good start, there.

The Jacksons

After leaving Motown, the Jackson 5 (minus Jermaine) moved to Epic Records as the Jacksons. After a shaky start, the Jacksons released two critically-acclaimed albums, Destiny (1978) and Triumph (1980), which bookended MJ’s Off the Wall (1979).

Rolling Stone gives both albums four stars. Robert Christgau grades Destiny a B+ and Triumph an A-.

Not bad for a transitional stage.

Michael Jackson

About Off the Wall, critic Dave Marsh (Rolling Stone’s reviewer) writes:

Nothing, not even his groundbreaking work with his family, quite prepared the world for Off the Wall, a masterpiece of modern record making. Jackson’s voice–adolescent breathiness crowding maturity–was the perfect vehicle for music that broke down stylistic and conceptual barriers with casual cool. Off the Wall features disco beat and rock guitar, soul intensity and good-time jive, a triumphant merger of the mechanical and the spiritual…Off the Wall is unquestionably one of the most important records of the past decade.

Robert Christgau grades Off the Wall an A, and calls it “the dance groove of the year.”

Well, what about Thriller? Rolling Stone again rates it five stars, and Dave Marsh writes, “Jackson topped himself–or came close–with Thriller,” and remarks that it is “compulsively listenable and seems destined to be as popular and influential as Off the Wall.” Well, you were close on that last one!

And to top it all off? “[Michael Jackson] is now in the very top rank of rock artists measured from the beginning.”

(Christgau’s review of Thriller was written after the album was already huge, so it doesn’t count for the purposes of this piece. For the record, he also grades it an A.)

So there you have it–a journey back in time, and a look at what Michael Jackson’s musical legacy would have been had Thriller sold moderately and MJ then retired. To wit:

  • Many classic singles with the Jackson 5.
  • Two respected transitional albums with the Jacksons.
  • Two solo albums hailed as classics not in retrospect but upon release.

A fine legacy indeed, even without superstardom.

The groundbreaking videos, smashing MTV’s color barrier, the dance moves, the posters, the hysteria induced among fans, the stage shows–these are all important elements of Michael Jackson’s legacy, and I share in them to some degree.

But to me, Michael Jackson’s legacy is his music. And it would have been a brilliant and beautiful legacy even if the rest had never happened.

The Jacksons – “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)”

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5 Responses to Michael Jackson’s musical legacy, or, what if Thriller hadn’t sold?

  1. AndrewPrice says:

    Gordon, interesting post. What do you think Jackson’s overall influence on pop music has been?

  2. That’s a good question, and a tough one. It gets into “if X hadn’t happened, would Y have happened?” territory, and the answer is I’m not sure. If I have to go out on a limb, I’d say that most pop/R&B crossovers can trace their success back to MJ–boy bands and Justin Timberlake, Usher, Janet Jackson (natch), R. Kelly, and so on. Would Rihanna’s “Umbrella” (a song I worship) exist without MJ? Maybe not.

    On the other hand, Prince put out 1999 the same year Thriller came out, and although they are very different artists, the same musicians would also cite Prince as an influence. It may be more a matter of historical forces rather than MJ himself.

    Breaking MTV’s ridiculous color barrier was certainly major.

    Here’s an interesting fact: All of the top four American Idol contestants cited Michael Jackson as one of their favorite artists, including the incredibly talented Adam Lambert. Most of them weren’t even born when Thriller came out. That suggests that his legacy reaches far and will continue to do so.

  3. now thriller starts as musical in germany!

  4. Looking for real info says:

    Thanks so much for this post. I am always looking for more info on his musical legacy as it’s really hard to find since most articles, as you said, deal with his massive cultural influence. This is so awesome.

    Question: What do you think his overall influence in music is? Some people think that besides his vocals, he’s had close to none as his real influence in in performance. From what I remember of the music scene at the time, R&B pop hadn’t really become a real genre yet until Thriller came out. I also remember nothing sounding quite like anything on Thriller when it was released either. Example, Billie Jean? I can’t even remember one song that sounded anything quite like it even if Mike had the Hall & Oates song ‘I can’t go for that’ as inspiration for it.

    I would like to know your opinion please.

  5. Romeo Triska says:

    God bless MJ.. He trully changed the world..

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