A Personal Reflection by Walter Rutledge
Michael Jackson’s influence on dance and popular culture had a great deal to do with the artists that inspired this phenom. Jackson was a true child prodigy, in the mold of Sammy Davis Jr.; both artists were fearless child performers who had complete command of their artistry.
Michael Jackson, singing Billie Jean at the Motown 25th anniversary, 1983
Jackson’s performance at the Motown 25th anniversary television special immortalized the Moonwalk. Derivations of the move have been linked to performers Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (who performed a similar step both backwards and forwards on stages in-and-out of Harlem) John W. Bubbles, and Bill Bailey.
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson step dance, 1932
The music and performing style of the electrifying Godfather of Soul James Brown, and the charismatic Mr. Entertainment Jackie Wilson had a profound impact on young Michael. Under the guidance of Susan DePasse Michael and his brothers were groomed according to the Motown canon. The Jackson Five received coaching and training in dance, choreography, singing, costuming, and proper deportment for both stage and public appearances
In 1982 the success of Jackson’s second solo album Thriller broke the MTV color/race barrier. His first video offering Beat It featured trained dancers and actors, street performers and gang members; and was choreographed by Tony Award winner Michael Peters. The edgy video, depicting gang violence resulting in conflict resolution, helped catapult the album to meteoric success worldwide.
Michael Jackson, Thriller, 1982
The third video Thriller redefined music videos creating an entirely new genre- the musical short film narrative. With a production cost of one half of a million dollars the groundbreaking video was the most expensive video ever produced. In 1995 Michael Jackson would produce the current record holder, the seven million dollar Scream co- starring his sister Janet.
By incorporating interdisplinary art forms, cutting edge technology, animations, scripted dialogue, popular cultural icons, sports superstars (Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson) actors (Marlon Brandon, Vincent Price, Eddie Murphy,) dancers (Fred Astaire [see below], Leslie Caron, Cyd Chrasse) supermodels (Iman, Naomi Campbell) directors (John Landis, Martin Scorsese) and choreographers (Michael Peters, Michael Kidd, Paula Abdul and Michael Jackson) Jackson continued to expand the boundaries the music video genre. His music defies categorization, amalgamating rhythm and blues, rock, pop, gospel, funk and ethnic music into a sound that was diverse yet distinctly Michael Jackson.
Fred Astaire, Puttin on the Ritz, 1930′s (see original Harlem version below)
Jackson’s influence on popular culture also helped remove the stigma of urban youth expressing themselves through movement. At the height of the eighties dance craze Jackson was able to surpass major motion picture influences such as Fame, The Turning Point, Dirty Dancing and Footloose. His explosive moves, extravagant stage productions and over the top videos emboldened entire generations of young men to want to “dance like Michael”.
Puttin on the Ritz, 1930, the Harlem version by Harry Richman