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Michael Jackson’s Indelible Pop Legacy

How the King left his mark on stars from Justin Timberlake to Lionel Richie

Michael Jackson performs

Michael Jackson performs in Los Angeles, California.

Steve Granitz/Getty Images

Trying to trace Michael Jackson’s influence on the pop stars that followed him is like trying to trace the influence of oxygen and gravity. So vast, far-reaching and was his impact — particularly in the wake of Thriller‘s colossal and heretofore unmatched commercial success — that there weren’t a whole lot of artists who weren’t trying to mimic some of the Jackson formula.

In a way, such appropriation is fitting. After all, Jackson himself was a borrower. He wasn’t content to make a pop record or a dance record. Instead, he wanted everything, combining rock guitar with R&B rhythms, disco strings and the funk of 40,000 years. The production on “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” is still baffling and magnificent, fusing a stuttering R&B bassline with traditional African call-and-response chants. Who was doing that then? And — even more notable — who’s thought to do it since?

While Jackson will never have an equal, he’s always had a steady string of disciples, ready and willing to apply his innovations to their own particular craft. Here’s a rundown of the pop stars who pay homage and contemporaries who did some borrowing from the King’s arsenal:

Pop Protégés:

Justin Timberlake: Timberlake followed Jackson’s career arc like it was the KLF’s The Manual: start out as the cute one in a precious, loveable boy band, gradually develop a personality that eclipses and then surpasses your fellow group members, and finally launch an ambitious and wildly successful solo career. If Timberlake’s first record owed a too-obvious debt to Jackson (play “Rock Your Body” and “Rock With You” back-to-back sometime), he quickly grew past simple mimicry, crafting a follow-up that dabbled in multiple genres without owing a clear debt to any.

Usher: The first and most obvious Jackson follower of the ’90s, Usher possessed both a distinctive voice and laser-precise dancing ability. But what worked for Usher was his ability — like Jackson’s — to move beyond simple pop balladry and develop a pure, singular artistic vision (and dance like a smooth criminal). Like Thriller, Usher’s Confessions embraced a plethora of styles, opening with a searing crunk classic and slowly giving way to a series of raw, searching ballads. His voice has grown with age, from a clipped squeak to a smooth, elegant croon. Usher has borrowed Jackson’s best elements, beginning with simple, low-maintenance pop songs and gradually evolving into an artist of stature and class.

Ne-Yo: And speaking of stature and class: Ne-Yo is contemporary soul’s author-in-residence. In addition to his own string of hits, Ne-Yo has co-written chart-toppers for other pop stars, chief among them: Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable.” Ne-Yo projects maturity and panache, but his best moments — like the gentle ballad “So Sick” or the whip-crack dance number “Nobody” — could have been lifted from any of Jackson’s early records. The way Ne-Yo clips and dishes his croon across old-school R&B rhythms is vintage Michael, and his prowess with the pen could easily find him penning this generation’s “We Are the World.”

Kanye West: Jackson’s influence on hip-hop may be harder to trace, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Of all of hip-hop’s current stars, only West possesses Jackson’s knack for allowing a singular vision to yield huge commercial dividends. West has Jackson’s superstar drive, the consuming desire to do everything bigger and better than anyone before him, and the ability to bring a very particular vision to a mass audience. Like Jackson, West is enamored of the spectacle: the scope and grandeur of his Glow in the Dark Tour was positively Jackson-esque, and his ability to sell hip-hop — in massive quantities — to a pop crowd rivals what Jackson did for R&B.

Beyoncé: Cue up any given track on B’Day, whether the stuttering “Get Me Bodied” or the searing “Ring the Alarm,” and hear Michael Jackson’s trickle-down effect. Her contemporaries may have Jackson’s pop flair, but only Beyoncé possesses his fierceness. The spry toughness of “Survivor” and “Independent Women” are distant cousins to Jackson’s darker, meaner numbers (like “Dirty Diana” or “Give it to Me”), and Beyoncé’s gradual transformation from bright-eyed ingenue to the new First Lady of Soul rivals Jackson’s own ascent to power.

Chris Brown: Unlike Usher, Chris Brown’s Jackson copycatting is far more shameless. Herky-jerk, borderline-impossible pop-and-lock dance moves? Check. White suit gangster chic? Check. Awards show stunt performances that often plunge into camp? Check. And now Brown is going to have to figure out how to pull off another Jackson stunt: return from controversy.

Canny Contemporaries:

New Edition: New Edition’s debut arrived just one year after Thriller, and if their chirpy chipmunk R&B didn’t quite have the same stature as Off the Wall, Jackson’s work with his brothers was a clear predecessor to New Edition’s pre-teen R&B. Skeptical? Cue up “Candy Girl” and tell us you don’t find yourself singing “ABC” halfway through. The rest of the record is full of the kind of bright, brash, hyperkinetic pop music that Jackson was riding to the top of the charts, just pitch-shifted upward to suit the Jr. High set (we’ll momentarily ignore the fact that the record contains a song called, uh, “She Gives Me a Bang”). Michael may have been well out of his boy band phase, but New Edition — and, hell, DeBarge, the New Kids on the Block and even Hanson — proved there was still gold in the hills he’d once mined.

Janet Jackson: It seems almost too obvious to mention, but Janet was certainly eyeing her big brother when she made her 1986 masterpiece Control. Like Thriller, Control is a product of collaboration; where Michael had Quincy Jones, Janet relied on Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis to shape her nervy, energetic pop. And, like Thriller, nearly every song on Control was a hit, from the corkscrewing floor-filler “Nasty” to the jubilant “When I Think of You.” The two Jacksons competed for pop dominance throughout the 80s, the kind of sibling rivalry that yields the best kind of results: increasingly sharp and savvy pop music.

Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey: Houston and Carey may have mightier voices than Michael, but their debt to his dance-pop is unmistakable. Houston’s debut contained the roaring Top 40 hit “How Will I Know,” but it was her full embrace of Jacksonian rhythm on its follow-up that made her a pop superstar. Ditto for Carey, whose career came to life with the soaring, euphoric “Emotions.” While both artists still tend to hew closely to the Big Ballad, their more energetic outings bear all of the King of Pop’s trademark traits, and their willingness to apply their mighty pipes to decidedly radio-friendly fare fits Jackson’s M.O. to a tee.

Classic Composers:

Marvin Gaye: Gaye’s career obviously preceded Jackson’s by a good 20 years, but by 1982 he was foundering. Lost in a spiral of drug abuse and self-loathing, releasing dated albums for a dwindling audience, Marvin needed a reinvention if he was going to maintain any measure of relevance. And reinvention is what he got: Gaye’s Midnight Love is his final masterpiece, and it’s not hard to hear it as a concerted effort to best all comers. Midnight Love finds the king of soul cautiously glancing over his shoulder at the young buck nipping at his heels. The album’s sole hit, “Sexual Healing,” is vintage Gaye, but the rest of it seems to take cues from Jackson’s Off the Wall. “Rockin’ After Midnight” and “Turn on Some Music” are sly, slippery R&B numbers that utilize the same kind of syncopation as Jackson’s best hits, topping them with the kind of soulful vocal only a master can provide — proof positive that sometimes pioneers need help finding their footing.

Lionel Richie: Richie’s legacy was established with the 20-ton funk hits he wrote and performed as part of the Commodores, but his transition into the pop milieu tended toward weepy balladry — that is until 1983’s Can’t Slow Down. Front-loaded with big, danceable singles like “All Night Long,” Richie, too, seemed inspired by Jackson’s move toward motion-friendly pop. And if Lionel’s star eventually faded, the string of hits he produced in the ’80s — among them “All Night Long” and “Dancing on the Ceiling” — seem unthinkable without Michael.

Cool Cousins:

LCD Soundsystem: Let’s call Brooklyn’s James Murphy the Michael Jackson of the eyeglass-&-T-shirt set. His records are prized by folks whose tastes tend toward the obscure, but it doesn’t take much work to hear the King of Pop lurking the shadows of Murphy’s finest songs. Like Jackson, Murphy has a fondness for disco and R&B, but he subtly inverts them, making alarmingly original compositions out of familiar musical memes. There’s no mistaking the lineage of the propulsive rhythms on LCD songs like “Us v Them” and “Disco Infiltrator.” Like Jackson, Murphy is also preoccupied with and terrified by the notion of aging — his best songs, “Losing My Edge” and “All My Friends,” are sly meditations on how age dulls, crushing adolescent fantasies and replacing them with day-to-day drudgery. The video for his “New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” even starred Kermit the Frog. LCD Soundsystem provide proof positive it’s possible to love both Michael Jackson and New Order.

J.U.S.T.I.C.E.: Not only do the French dance duo share Jackson’s affinity for quirky, infectious rhythms they actually name-drop “P.Y.T.” in their own alphabetic masterpiece “D.A.N.C.E.” The rest of the group’s debut veers from glitchy electro to floor-filling techno, but they never lose their knack for a hook. Cue up the manic, screeching “Stress” and tell us you can’t envision zombies rising from their graves, both band members transforming into werewolves as a whole new creature feature slowly unspools.


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