BitDepth 687 - July 07

After Michael Jackson, what confluence of talent, timing and opportunity will ever make someone that famous again?
Fifteen seconds of fame

In 1978, with The Wiz, Off the Wall and MTV still in his future, Michael Jackson was leaving his earlier fame behind and looking toward the still to be proven possibilities of his future. Here, he poses with brothers Tito, Jackie, Marlon, Randy and Janelle 'Penny' Commissiong in 1978. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.

Michael Jackson's gone and the tiniest of the questions that have been asked in the considerable wake of his passing is whether anyone in entertainment will ever be that big in the public consciousness again.
In 1968, American pop culture artist Andy Warhol famously said, "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes."
In the Internet age, that's starting to sound like an eternity. The ability of any single person or event to capture our attention has always been a function of the efficiency of information dissemination and the capacity of popular media to expose large swaths of the public to the same data.
In less than three centuries, mass information transfer has consistently sped up. From years via word of mouth to weeks as transportation accelerated personal interactions, to days as newspapers published to hours for radio broadcasts to minutes for websites, text messages and e-mails.

The death of shared experience
With this proliferation and pace of modern media, and the explosion of options for its consumption, has come the death of shared experience. We no longer look at the same television shows, listen to the same radio Jackson or see the same movies.
This is a very different environment from the one that nurtured Michael Jackson. When the initial career surge that took his band of brothers to international success began to peter out, Jackson struck out on his own, bravely taking control of his career, leveraging 15 years of steady practice and staking his future on a new fangled idea – a new cable network that was running videos of musicians continuously. 

His fame was built on not one, but two very different careers, the first as a talented curiosity in the first harmony boy band, the next fulfilling and advancing that promise.
The young Jackson must have looked at the lineup of performers on the early MTV and realised two things quickly. Most of the videos were awful, and all the performers were white.
So he trumped one with the other. His very first music video, for 'Don't stop till you get enough,' looks pretty lame today, but it was absolutely astonishing in its time, an expensive experiment with laser technology that pushed the cutting edge.

Crossover King
From there, he kept upping the ante on his competition until the video for the song Thriller, arguably the best music video ever made, seduced MTV into putting the young singer into the heaviest rotation of any black performer of the era. It was the making of both of them.
Thriller went on to become the biggest selling album of all time.
First he crossed the lines of radio, moving with his brothers from the R&B charts to the Pop charts, the equivalent of walking in a fancy hotel's front door in 1930's Tennessee. Then he triumphantly crossed over from radio to television reaching a new audience through music videos. 
Michael Jackson's death holds the angst and impact that it does because of how deeply embedded he became in our lives through his savvy use of mass media.

Over 40 years, his music, dance moves, videos and personal theatrics have served as mileposts for a critical mass of people. 
The 1988 Motown 25th anniversary performance in particular, during  which he dramatically unveiled the 'Moonwalk' remains a kind of touchstone even for people who didn't much care for him otherwise.
It's instructive to note that the only other entertainer to even come close to the sustained fame and interest that Michael Jackson stimulated is Madonna, who hewed close to the latter career path he blazed.
To become Michael Jackson today, you would need to have a career that lasted four decades with a consistent supply of hits, the ability to adapt effortlessly to new media and flourish in them and then have the kind of talent that makes people look twice. 
Then you'd have to catch that lightning in a bottle, not just once, but twice.

Michael Jackson in Trinidad, a remembrance
Jacksons Mania, 1978
On MJ and his brothers
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