That's My Jam

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Why Michael Jackson Matters and Will Be Missed By That’s My Jam

Posted by ThatsMyJamRadio on August 9, 2009

Michael Jackson is dead. Those are words that still evoke confusion and an intense disbelief, even though it has been nearly two months since he passed. It’s our hope that writing about it will finally provide some clarity and acceptance ― as well as an eloquent reflection on the importance of the King of Pop ― for That’s My Jam’s readers.

It’s one of those days that will forever be etched in our memories. It started with a simple text from a good friend that Michael had had a heart attack. Within minutes, we were on, of all sites, which had only moments before been the first agency to declare that the singer had died. It was difficult to concentrate over the next few hours as we followed Twitter and watched TV for more confirmation. Hours later, it came pouring in from news outlets such as CNN, the Los Angeles Times and ABC News.

Powerful Web sites such as Google and Twitter experienced problems because of the amount of traffic coming from people looking for information on what had happened and what was to come.

When communication online failed, we found ourselves calling loved ones in disbelief of the news we had received. It was somehow comforting to speak with others who were equally distraught, even though this was not a person that most of us had ever met or even seen in person. In this moment, just like many others, Michael Jackson brought us together. Friends, families, communities … all reflecting on memories that he had given us. Jackson has famously spoken of how he didn’t have the type of childhood that many of us take for granted, but in him we had our growing-up experiences enhanced with his fashion-forward threads, innovative sounds and eye-catching visuals.

He’s also a major “entry point,” if you will, to the music we celebrate here at That’s My Jam. In 1979, the infamous “Death to Disco Night” encouraged hundreds, possibly thousands of Chicago White Sox fans to storm the field and destroy disco records. Many of the genre’s performers were black, gay, female or any combination of the three, though the stampeding audience barely reflected these demographics. With the event giving “permission,” several DJs and radio stations across the United States joined in the backlash and pulled disco and R&B from their playlists. Disco/dance was nearly indistinguishable from R&B, specifically funk, as evidenced by the Billboard charts at the time, and many a good record weren’t considered for airplay in the near future based on this connection. (It should be noted that Billboard has also had various charts for “black” music, some dating as recent as 1990 and always compiled of R&B in whatever its current incarnation happened to be.)

This led to many more rock acts dominating the charts. When MTV launched nearly two years later on August 1, 1981, it took on the format that top 40 stations across the country were playing: guitar-infused album rock, most often performed by white men. This was especially palatable given that the network’s early audience was in rural areas, where cable was necessary to get local channels (and also the impetus for the “I Want My MTV” campaign, as the channel naturally wanted to be in more homes).

Though MTV’s roster wasn’t exclusively white men, the black artists who did get airtime, such as Tina Turner and Eddy Grant, produced music that fit into the album-oriented rock structure that the network had styled. Black artists who didn’t conform to it simply didn’t get played.

In the time between MTV’s debut and 1983, Rick James’ 1981 album Street Songs saw neither of the videos for the popular “Give It to Me Baby” or “Super Freak” played on the channel. James vocalized his anger and accused the network of “blatant racism.” This led David Bowie to question VJ Mark Goodman during an interview about why the network didn’t play black artists, which left the VJ ― who clearly wasn’t in programming department ― speechless. Nightline even had a segment about the subject and BET provided an outlet for black artists by introducing the long-running program, Video Soul. (To this day, some former MTV representatives claim that there weren’t any quality, or the quantity of, black videos in existence at the time to air, though Video Soul seemed to have no problem filling that daypart.)

All of this set the stage for Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” Along with its high-production qualities and rumors ― which still persist today ― that some record labels threatened to pull their music videos from MTV if it didn’t show black artists, the video entered rotation and became a massive hit. As was “Beat It,” which followed and, finally, the title track from the Thriller album. Jackson’s belief in video as an art form raised the bar for the genre, but also sparked an interest in other black artists (Prince and Billy Ocean were soon added to MTV’s rotation). This style of music, growing in popularity, also found a home back on the radio in the rhythmic top 40 category, a format that embraced the likes of Madonna, Shannon, the aforementioned artists and, of course, Michael Jackson.

This paved the way for freestyle, hip-hop and new jack swing movements, and the resurgence of R&B that took place in the mid ’80s to early ’90s, which in turn evolved music (for better or worse) into the current landscape, in which black artists are much more prevalent on video outlets. Perhaps it wasn’t Jackson who put the video for “Billie Jean” into the VCR for broadcast, but someone had to provide the spark to ignite the recognition and revolution of video-era-to-present black music and rhythmic styles, and we’ve yet to see anyone else make quite this impact that his sales numbers made on the industry.

This format is the seed that branched off into the dance, pop and R&B we focus on at That’s My Jam, and his was the music that influenced so many of the musicians and performers that create it today. He made us demand more from their music; he made us demand more from their videos; and he made us demand more from their performances.

So many artists wouldn’t be around if it weren’t for Michael Jackson because his international superstardom and all-around good music pushed through barriers to inspire young people to hone their talent to try and compete on his level. While few will be able to duplicate what he’s done, many have carved their own niche and are quick to acknowledge him as one of their key influences.

The scars on his career ― thanks to a colorful lifestyle and an eager press ― will likely taint his legacy for some time, but those are situations of which we are not privy to certain information, or at this point have the power to change or judge. The scars may fade one day, and historians, fans and critics will only remember and respect his music. We know that we are saddened by his loss because we will no longer hear new material from him, nor get another chance to see him do what he did best. But we at That’s My Jam grieve most for his friends, family and especially his children, for though we lost someone who gave so much to us in the form of music and memories, they have lost a friend, a brother, a son and a father.

Our prayers and well wishes go out to those friends and family, and we hope for a swift handling of the estate and other affairs that were left behind or have arisen since his death. We also say thank you for sharing Michael with us, because his music touched each of us individually. And to Michael, we say thank you for speaking to each of us with your music, for inspiring us with your dancing and for encouraging us to demand more of ourselves. May you rest in peace.

2 Responses to “Why Michael Jackson Matters and Will Be Missed By That’s My Jam”

  1. Franc said

    This was a very good read. The article clearly highlights how important Michael Jackson's contribution to music was and still it. RIP MJ.

  2. S said

    Thank you for this exceptional reflection on the legacy of a remarkable entertainer. He has left an indelible mark on pop culture, one not even the harshest of critics can deny. While others found perverse pleasure in using music to divide, surreptitiously by race, Michael sought, and successfully so, to unify music lovers – lovers of music – all around the globe. And that is why the harshest of critics will fail everytime in the attempt to marginalize the influence of this man. The mere mention of his name on their lips is testament to the fact that Michael was also a part of their lives. So sorry for you if you couldn't get down with Mike. But like he once sang, "Don't blame it on the sunshine – Don't blame it on the moonlight – Don't blame it on the good times – Blame it on the boogie," or perhaps an inability to boogie. Don't worry, there'll always be room for you on the dance floor – when you're ready.Thank you Michael.

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