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Michael Jackson’s unlikely influences

It’s been six years since the passing of Michael Jackson in circumstances we all know. At his peak, Jackson experienced a level of euphoric popularity few have enjoyed suffered in the history of mankind, never mind music. There’s certainly a strong case in suggesting he was the most influential artist of the past century.

He was also the most controversial of all. His eccentric behaviour and the constant physical changes he undertook have been recurrent and understandably distracting talking points. Worse, the child molestation allegations and his evident drug problem were dark episodes which would ruin the latter years of his life and precipitate his death.

This cast aside, I love MJ’s music and think it’s a great shame that it’s been so often overshadowed by off-stage antics. In this post, I want to look at the relatively unknown, unlikely inspirations on his career and music.

michael jackson disguised as charlie chaplin

Charlie Chaplin

Like Jackson, Chaplin was a trend setter in his own field, and revolutionised cinema when he began making silent films in the early 1900s. Michael Jackson was a Chaplin fan since childhood.

His most notorious association with the silent star came in 1995 when he recorded Chaplin’s classic song ‘Smile’ for the HIStory album. It was intended for release as the album’s final single, but was sadly canceled days before its release date, due to issues with making the short film.

The short radio edit of ‘Smile’, originally on the rare CD single, was used on the deluxe UK edition of the greatest hits album ‘King of Pop’ in 2008, released to celebrate Michael’s 50th birthday.

Marcel Marceau

An old French mime artist seems an odd idol to a modern international pop star. Yet, Jackson was a great admirer of Marceau, whose ‘la Marche contre le vent’ routine is said to have partly inspired MJ’s famous Moonwalk.

Jackson met Marceau several times, during his Bad European tour in 1988 and during an HBO show in 1995. He also attended many of Marceau’s US shows before his big Off the Wall album breakthrough, incorporating some of his moves into his own choreography.

Marceau’s influence on Jackson is most visible in the late singer’s dance routine for Billie Jean, which adopted many mime-like moves. See the video above, from around minute 7-ish.

Fred Astaire

Perhaps Jackson’s greatest inspiration alongside James Brown. In fact, MJ was so fond of Astaire he dedicated his 1988 autobiography to him after his passing.

In recent years, personal notes of Jackson’s were discovered in which, discussing his need to focus on video, he wrote “If I don’t concentrate [on] film, no immortalizing,” adding [I want to be] better than Kelly and Astaire … the greatest ever.” This may explain MJ’s very singular obsession with ‘short films’ throughout his career.

Legend has it Astaire rang Jackson to congratulate him following his breathtaking 1983 performance of Billie Jean at Motown 25. Before his death, Astaire is rumoured to have said “I didn’t want to leave this world without knowing who my descendant was. Thank you Michael”.

Astaire’s influence is most evident in the Smooth Criminal video, which is strikingly similar to Astaire’s 1953 musical Band Wagon.

Mavis Staples

mavis-staples1

Mavis Staples is an African American blues and gospel singer, who was part of the Staple’s Sisters from the 70s. Now aged 75, she’s still performing – she even featured at Glastonbury last week!

Jackson’s music is characterised by countless signature moves and strong iconography: the single white glove, the Moonwalk, the hat, the meaningless but somehow catchy “shamone”, etc.

Few people know that the latter, which Jackson first used in Bad is a tribute to Staples’ song “I’ll Take You There”. Indeed, that’s the video in which she first used the made-up word.

All art forms

Michael Jackson was a musician, but his influences came from all art forms. In some ways, this explains his apparent failure to fit into a musical category. Of course, Jackson is widely known as the ‘King of Pop’. In truth, when Elizabeth Taylor originally coined the phrase in the late 80s, she referred to him as the ‘King of Pop, Rock and Soul’ because his music went beyond the limiting boundaries of genre.

The same can be say about his stage presence. At his peak, Jackson sometimes seemed like a singer, a ballet dancer, a mime. He hit the highest notes and the lowest of the low with disconcerting ease. His performances broke barriers of gender, age, class. The costumes only he could possibly pull off were of another, undefinable time.

For 6 years now, the world’s missed one of the greatest creative genius in the history of entertainment.

5 Comments

  1. This is a genuinely incredible post. I’ve been an MJ fan since before I could talk and it’s very rare to learn something new about him. The link with Fred Astaire is such massive one and I had no idea! Thanks for sharing this.

    • Valentin Valentin

      Glad you enjoyed it and learnt something! It was certainly a fun piece to write.

  2. Raven Woods Raven Woods

    Very nice piece on MJ’s inspirations. It is always worth bearing in mind that great art doesn’t come out of a vacuum. Artists are always inspired by what has gone before.

    Another major (but somewhat lesser known) influence on Michael was Bob Fosse. In this clip of Fosse’s “Snake Dance” you can see many elements of both Michael’s “look” and style. Note the high pants, white socks and black loafers!

    As for the importance of stressing Michael’s art over his personal life, I agree to a point in the sense that the media often allowed sensationalism to overtake any serious interest in his art. However, I think it is important to point out that Michael Jackson WAS a great human being, as well. His contributions to humanitarian causes and the love he had for humanity and the planet (as well as the many proactive things he actually did for these causes) should not be underestimated. If you have not read his book Dancing the Dream, I highly suggest that you do. It will give you a lot of insight into the man and human being behind the music. I believe his humanity should be celebrated every bit as much as his music. That isn’t to say he was perfect and did not make some questionable life choices. He certainly did, but that is true of all of us if we are honest with ourselves. For example,when it comes to pop music, especially, there is not a single great or iconic musician we can name who did not, at some point, has not had a drug dependency issue. That is really almost a moot point these days when it comes to discussing famous writers, artists, and musicians.

    However, it is always great to see Michael’s genius being celebrated, and it is indeed fascinating to learn about all of his influences.

  3. Raven Woods Raven Woods

    Oops, forgot to include the link to the Fosse clip! Here it is.

    • Valentin Valentin

      Wow, the similarities really are striking! I’d never seen this before, amazing. Thanks for sharing, and for your comment 🙂

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