Even when the hits stopped, his influence remained
If there was a rival to the cascade of images in the aftermath of Michael Jackson’s death last week, it was the avalanche of statements from his fellow musicians and celebrities.
On the BET Awards Sunday, artist after artist spoke of Jackson’s influence. Some of that influence was appreciable in a performer’s body language or vocal phrasing. Some of it was a bit more abstract. Basketball star LeBron James was influenced by Jackson? Then you saw him dance and, yup, a little MJ crept into his cavalier moves. But it was the deeply unfunky Jeremy Piven who made one of the night’s more succinct observations about Jackson’s reach. Without the gloved one, the actor joked, “Justin Timberlake would probably be selling curly fries.’’
In the days since Jackson’s death, music fans have debated his relevance. While it’s true that it’d been nearly a decade since he threatened the top 10, and even longer since a song of his was justified in being there, Jackson’s sound has never left the charts.
Timberlake is just one of dozens of artists over the last 30 years to stand on Jackson’s shoulders and co-opt an element of his fluid style - vocal, musical, or physical - to varying degrees of success. Some of the names on that list include - but are by no means limited to - his younger sister Janet, Usher, Mariah Carey, Boyz II Men, R. Kelly, Mary J. Blige, Britney Spears, Chris Brown, Rihanna, Beyonce, and Akon. Hell, Ne-Yo’s whole gentlemanly and tuneful career is basically predicated on the existence of Jackson’s ballad “Human Nature.’’ Chris Tucker isn’t even a musician, but his Jackson shtick is as much a part of who he is as his high-pitched lunacy.
It’s not just performers who were taking notes. Songwriters cribbed from his song structures - especially his swoon-inducing middle eights - and from those Jackson songs written by others, most notably Rod Temperton (“Off the Wall,’’ “Rock With You,’’ and “Thriller’’). Producers from Teddy Riley to Timbaland have emulated the meticulous melding of R&B and pop that Jackson and Quincy Jones cooked up. Add it up and you’ve got a pop industry shot through with threads of his influence.
In the early ’80s, Jackson was also an early adopter of the rock ’n’ soul and “special guest star’’ trends that presaged the rap-rock collision and the current “featuring’’ phenomenon. He asked guitar heroes Eddie Van Halen, Steve Stevens, and Slash to appear on his records, lending rock cred to his edgier tunes and duetted with classic rock titans Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney. In turn, plenty of rock artists counted themselves fans through the years. Chris Cornell, who with Soundgarden was a founding father of grunge, covered “Billie Jean’’ on his 2007 album, “Carry On.’’ Just last year, Fall Out Boy and John Mayer covered “Beat It.’’
Jackson’s reach extended into other areas as well. Hip-hop acts sampled him. Electronica artists remixed him. Jazz greats deconstructed him. Miles Davis was notably among the latter, recording “Human Nature’’ on his 1985 album “You’re Under Arrest’’ and often playing it live.
Like all artists, Jackson himself was an amalgamation of the styles of his own idols, over which he laid his unique brand of sugar and swagger. He took the sweet sadness of Smokey Robinson, the gruff soul of James Brown, the windblown elegance of Diana Ross, and the unbridled exuberance and civic responsibility of Stevie Wonder and blanketed them with a satiny, effervescent cool that made the ethereal feel substantial. The hook-ups with McCartney were no mere photo ops. From his creamy timbre to his famous exclamatory “whoo’’ to his melodic gifts, McCartney’s stylistic choices were also added to Jackson’s toolbox.
Starting this month, an estimated 750,000 people were planning to head to London to see Jackson during his 50-date engagement at the O2 arena. It was either going to launch a redemptive comeback or act as a money-making victory lap for a once-great entertainer. That chapter will remain unwritten. But if his death reminds us of anything, it’s that a light continues to shine in pop music for his having been a part of it. SARAH RODMAN