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The financial, political, historical and racial impact of Michael Jackson's success

To say or read that Thriller is a historical success is a truism.

To read or say that "We Are the World" was an event is another obvious one. So... Some facts.

Michael Jackson, Grammy Awards, 1984

The 1980s marked the arrival of a new period in the music industry: that of a market that can now be defined as "global" both by the impact of technological advances and progress in terms of communications and transmission, but also by the portability of music, particularly through the medium of the cassette, and then the CD.

But it was also a period of severe recession that the record industry faced, and which forced it to target a larger market in order to continue to prosper. And it is within this market that the artistic figure of Michael Jackson intervenes, more than any other. His album Off the Wall, with its refined sound quality and stylistic eclecticism that brought together music lovers and dancers, whites and blacks, children and adults, had already broken through the marketing barriers in 1979 and begun to warm the financial freeze that the industry was suffering from. Thriller would go even further, we know it.

The success of Thriller

« Man, that thing you did with Michael, Duke [Ellington] and I never would have dreamed of such success. Do you hear me? We would never have dared to dream of it! » Count Basie

Indeed, it was the 40 million-selling Thriller album that led the music industry out of the crisis. Of course, Michael Jackson was the artist who broke the racial barrier of MTV with his first scripted shorts, Billie Jean and Beat It. But it should be noted that, for the first time in the history of the musical film, his productions would go beyond their advertising role, and would instead be the cherry on top of an already very real and outsized musical success.

The success obtained by Thriller is such - the album remained thirty-seven weeks at the top of the two colorist charts (Pop/rock and R&B) American - that it gave place to the organization of a historical ceremony, on 7 February 1984, in the Museum of Natural History of New York, with the presence of the president of CBS, the founder of the Guinness of the Records and 1500 other guests. It was, in fact, to crown the 67 Gold Awards and 58 Platinium Awards received by the album, to which were added 15 Awards but also a capital of 9 million dollars generated by the singles alone, bringing to a total of 140 Gold and Platinium Awards.

[It should be noted that the number of units sold to receive Gold and other Awards was twice (for Gold) and four times (for Platinium) higher at the time than today's thresholds...].

"We Are the World": a multiple and cumulating impact

But Michael Jackson also gave the music industry a run for its money in another area... He gave it the opportunity to take its first giant steps internationally by developing a phenomenon that would come to be known as "charity rock" - and note that his "We Are the World" was not only American, but clearly an African-American production, which is, at this point, very important.

Along with the contemporary English Band Aid project put on by Bob Geldof, Michael's project laid the groundwork for the Live Aid concert, the largest single event in human history in terms of a large audience.

Just as Thriller gave birth to a generation of international mega-stars, Live Aid ushered in the era of the mega-event and made the most of new technologies.

From a political point of view, "charity rock" is a paradoxical phenomenon. On the one hand, it gives the music industry the opportunity to exploit the humanitarian vein, while at the same time it does not fail to exploit a real goldmine in untapped markets. Live Aid was simulcast to an international audience of 1.5 million people. This project brought the world's attention to Africa in a way that had simply never happened before. This process generated a spirit in which musicians from all over the world felt concerned and followed up with other projects, each on their own scale, to try to alleviate the famine in Africa (including "Tears are not enough" in Canada, "Band für Ethiopia" in Germany, "Chanteurs sans frontières" in France, and "E.A.T." in Australia).

While this first flurry of projects could easily be accused of trivializing famine, it also opened up previously unthinkable possibilities in terms of cultural policies. Subsequent projects, such as Farm Aid, Sun City, the Amnesty International Tours, and the Nelson Mandela Tributes, took on a much more political tone, while continuing to reach 100 million people. Recognizing the power of such events, Nelson Mandela even decided to give his first international lecture outside of South Africa at a rock concert in London's Wembley Stadium to celebrate his release from prison.

Finally, it is worth noting that this "charity rock", initially focused on Africa, has in fact given rise to and accompanied the emergence of African sounds, and brought artists such as Youssou N'Dour, Aswad, or Sly and Robbie to the international market, in an aesthetic that has become the "world beat", a new musical category with essentially African sound influences.

The first black superstars

While Michael Jackson, with Thriller, paved the way for a limited number of international mega-stars, after him and for the first time, a status of such magnitude has affected other black artists. Thus, along with Michael Jackson, some of those who have experienced a powerful resurgence or generated new and powerful interest are Lionel Richie, Diana Ross, Prince, Tina Turner, Whitney Houston, among others.

Perhaps we should :

  • Detect here the first sign of the capacity of a larger and more cosmopolitan world market to produce certain changes in the acceptance of a greater diversity of artists in the international arena;

  • Agree that the publicity impact that can lead to superstardom has finally become available to African-Americans;

  • And recognize that if 19 of the 50 albums that charted in 1985 were the product of black artists, it was because Michael Jackson used his talent and intelligence to be there and open the door for them.


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