The Real Eighties: Michael Jackson And The Bending Genre

I’m going to kick off this month of writing about the music of the eighties by getting the biggest-selling artist of the decade – maybe of all time – out of the way right away.

And I’m doing it to kick off the “theme” of this, the first week of my observance of eighties music; Genre-bending.


One of the great tragedies – maybe “Tragedy” isn’t the right word, but work with me, here – of the nineties and 2000s is the caricature that Michael Jackson became.

You probably know where this is going; the bit every music writer mentions about Michael Jackson in the eighties; he had Eddie Van Halen play the guitar solo on “Beat It”.

You’ve heard it – the statement and, natch, the song – many many many times before.

So why does it matter?

Let’s look at the biggest-selling artists in pop music, by decade:

  • Fifties:  Frank Sinatra (followed by Elvis, Pat Boone and Perry Como)
  • Sixties:  The Beatles (no surprise) followed by Elvis and the Rolling Stones)
  • Seventies:  Elton John (followed by David Bowie and the Stones).
  • Eighties:  We’ll come back to that below.
  • Nineties: Madonna
  • Oughties: Eminem.
  • Teens: We don’t know that yet, now, do we?

So what do we see, here?

Look at Frank Sinatra and Elton John.  They had very defined styles.  They both did them – whatever you think of the styles’ respective merits – very well.  And both presided as the most successful artists over decades – or, as I keep saying, parts of decades – where music really didn’t change a whole lot; where people stayed in their genres and did their thing, not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that.

Eminem?  Yeah, he’s a white rapper – and the closest he’s ever gotten to musical cross-cultural pollination was his hip-hop version of “Sweet Home Alabama”, from Eight Mile.  Which was funny, and pointed, and really really good, but hardly a cultural milestone.  He’s collaborated with…Dr. Dre.  Interesting, but hardly a stylistic reach.

The Beatles got on the charts by covering the Isley Brothers.  Elvis got famous by covering R&B music from back when R&B was “black peoples’ music”.  And Michael Jackson, after more than a decade as an R&B star with some crossover success, suddenly went beyond bending the genres to downright twisting them.

Which opened the way – commercially, if not creatively – for the mass of cross-pollinating creativity that was to follow.

Which we’ll be talking about more through the rest of this week.

7 thoughts on “The Real Eighties: Michael Jackson And The Bending Genre

  1. I don’t know quite where MJ fell off the beam, but surely it was after Thriller. That album was a masterpiece of modern pop music. Speaking of, because I’m weird that way, I’ve always liked the bass lines in Thriller more than that guitar solo in Beat It.

  2. I’m certainly no hater of 80’s music – quite the contrary, in fact – and I can see where you’re going with the black-white crossover business, but “… the Beatles got on the charts by covering the Isley Brothers.”

    C’mon Mitch. That’s a statement on a par with “Hitler was a vegetarian”. Not factually incorrect, but trivially irrelevant. In the three or so years between Beatles ’65 and the White Album, the Beatles (plus a VERY large nod to George Martin) laid out the architecture for essentially everything that could ever possibly be construed as Rock music. They virtually invented the concept of the rock group, the world tour, the rock video, the album as a gesamtkunstwerk and the pop music artist as a cultural avatar. As tunesmiths, Lennon-McCartney were/are on a par with the Gershwins, Berlins, Carmichaels and all the rest of the American Standards crowd.

    By contrast, MJ was a talented singer who studied and improved upon Jame Brown’s stagecraft and had the good sense, good taste, or good advice to hook up with Quincy Jones.

  3. I recomment Sirious XM radio channel 33. First Wave. Alternative music from the early-mid 80s.

  4. Mitch, I’m still trying to figure out why you’re such a ‘Kansas’ hater. I know, 70’s, but they like Heart (and Charlie Daniels) continued to do some pretty good music–though not necessarily mainstream, along with Rush in the cross-over-decade.
    Just sayin….

  5. Yes, I fully acknowledge that as time went on he transformed into a freakier and freakier living comic book. However, to be able to do this takes metric assloads of talent:

    FAR more talent than any rapper needs to have to speak in rhythm.

  6. I think MJ, like a lot of child stars just lacked someone who was willing to tell him “no.” That little kid had a lot of talent and charisma, but ended up as a caricature of a bad parody of a failed child star.

  7. What about Eminem and Dido? (Stan) Eminem and Rhianna? (Love the way you lie). Enya and Skylar Grey? I don’t think their fans like rap music.

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