Today would have been Michael Jackson’s 55th birthday. Tragically, of course, he didn’t live long enough to see it — he died four years ago of a heart attack catalysed by propofol and benzodiazepine intoxication, and the wranglings over his death and legacy continue to this day. But for all that Jackson’s life was a strange and often sad one, he deserves to be remembered first and foremost as one of the most spectacular musical talents who’s ever lived, an endlessly gifted singer, dancer and songwriter. So to remember him today, here’s a retrospective of the various ways in which he changed both music and the music industry. RIP.
Breaking down racial barriers
There was so much attention focused on Jackson’s mysterious whitening over the years that it was easy to forget what he was: a black man ascending to unprecedented heights in the world of entertainment. The Jackson 5’s career was groundbreaking enough — as Duke professor Mark Anthony Neal observed after Jackson’s death, “You basically had five working-class black boys with Afros and bell bottoms, and they really didn’t have to trade any of that stuff in order to become mainstream stars.” And then, of course, Jackson’s own solo career placed him firmly at the apex of the pop pyramid, paving the way for the many African-American stars who came after him.