MTV's Bill Flanagan on Jackson's music

Michael Jackson in Beat It Video
Before there was Michael Jackson the tabloid sensation, there was Michael Jackson the trail-blazing musician. Our friend Bill Flanagan of MTV has an appreciation:

Michael Jackson presided over the third and final big bang of the rock 'n' roll era.

The first explosion was Elvis. That was about sexual liberation and racial integration, and that blast lasted about ten years.

The second explosion was the Beatles - and everything they issued in. Suddenly pop music was about long hair and experimental sounds, progressive politics and outlaw rhetoric. Rock was about a counter-culture. That blast reverberated for 20 years, right through Springsteen, Prince and U2.

The third explosion was "Thriller," Michael Jackson's 1982 album - the bestselling record of all time, and an album that invented the pop world we are still living in 25 years later.

"Thriller" re-merged pop music with mainstream entertainment. After twenty years of anti-glamour, pop became again what it had been before the Sixties - part of show business. After "Thriller," pop was about not just how you sounded but how you looked, how you dressed, how you danced.

Michael Jackson ushered in a new era after the long reign of the counterculture. He did Pepsi commercials and met with President Reagan. He did not pretend not to care about commercial success - he wanted to break all the old records. Michael did not idolize Dylan and Hendrix - he idolized Elizabeth Taylor and Walt Disney.

The Michael Jackson model has ruled pop music for 26 years, and it shows no sign of ending. He made the world safe for MTV and Madonna, "Flashdance" and "Footloose," Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake.

A student of P.T. Barnum, Jackson courted crazy rumors and publicity stunts - and at some point that hunger for tabloid headlines turned on him. He fed a beast, and the beast bit him.

At some point Michael seemed to forget about being a musician and got lost in being a star.

But one crucial fact often gets overlooked in all the statistics and hype and hoopla: Michael Jackson was amazingly talented.

Those Motown records he made as a kid ("I Want You Back") were fantastic, but it was when Michael grew up and took control of his own creativity that he gave us "Beat It," "Wanna Be Starting Something," "Billie Jean." The first time you heard those songs, with their snaking rhythms and beautiful playing and strange, almost paranoid lyrics, you had to pull the car over to the side of the road to figure out what was going on.

This was a new kind of popular music, so compelling that, like Elvis and the Beatles before him, Michael Jackson moved the mainstream.

If Michael Jackson had not been able to write those songs and sing them so powerfully, none of the rest of the circus would have mattered.

And now that he's gone, once the gossip and the exploitation and the vultures pass by, the music he made is what will remain.