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.
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.
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.
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 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.