Mr. Fuller ENG-102
American Icon Essay
October 20, 2003
Michael Jackson: The King of Reinvention
If you look in your copy of Webster’s English Dictionary under the I’s, you will find the definition for the word “icon.” An icon is simply an “image or representation of one who is the object of great attention or devotion; an idol” (Webster’s 90). Skipping a few words down, you can find that an idol is “an image used as an object of worship” It takes much to be worshiped. Throughout time, America’s pop-culture has been filled with icons of each generation, such as Babe Ruth or Elvis Presley. These icons represent a dream hidden within each of us – the dream, though not easily achieved, is to become extraordinarily successful, no matter the circumstances of your origin. Oddly, as if icon status is not enough, Americans seem to have given each of the few individuals who are exceptionally successful nick-names, proclaiming their superiority over the rest of us, such as Ruth’s “Sultan of Swat,” or Presley’s “King of Rock.” As far as pop music goes, there is another individual who has been worshiped in America for many years. With supreme talent and success, like all of the others icons, this person has been given a name of superiority above the rest. This person is Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson has become the icon we know him as today by achieving two accomplishments. He fulfilled the American Dream-to become successful in spite of his humble beginning-by way of his extraordinary talent. Secondly, he has stayed fresh for so many years, increasing his pop-icon status, by constantly reinventing himself. Only through these two achievements could he have become “The King of Pop.”
Michael Jackson first came on the scene years ago. He was the seventh of eight children, born in Gary, Indiana. Just like the rest of us, he came began humbly. Though an honest, humble beginning, here is where it changes. At the fresh age of five, Michael began a career in music as lead singer in the Motown band, Jackson 5. From the very beginning, Michael took on stardom. He was the icon that America was looking at. He was the voice they listened to. Before reaching the age of ten, Michael had begun to develop a name for himself in the eyes of America’s youth.
As a child, Michael Jackson was a performing musical prodigy. As front-“kid,” Michael could “sing any song, with the passion of well trained performers” (Carrigan 1). At this time, in the late 60’s, this talent was unparalleled. He sang, danced, and gave everything his pre-adolescent body would allow him, while America ate his performance alive. We could not get enough. For his age, Michael was the best talent ever heard of. He was the king. He had not introduced the world to his version of pop music just yet, but he had already become king.
Toward the end of the 70’s, The Jackson 5, who were later known as The Jacksons, were beginning to die out. Although the groups’ popularity started to falter, Michael’s did not. It seemed almost immediate, that when The Jacksons career ended, Michael’s solo career began. In 1977, Michael began his film debut in The Wiz, staring as “Scarecrow” along side Diana Ross as Dorothy. It must be nice to begin whatever you choose on top. It certainly worked for Michael in the beginning, and in film, as well as in his solo career.
The first big signs of success of Michael’s solo career came almost immediately. This had to have been the only option suspected. Given that Michael had already gained quite a following through his earlier performances in music and film, it was almost inevitable that his fans would fall in love with his new work. With the birth of the 1980’s, Michael brought a new sound in music to a new audience to draw from, with the technology for stardom to spread at the speed of light. Michael used each of these toward his advantage, recreating himself into the pop-icon we know him as today. “In 1982, Michael Jackson’s new album broke molds set in music by performers such as Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross” (Martinec 314). Michael brought something new in his music which combined a funky Motown accompaniment with the electric sound of the eighties. Here is where Michael first stated to reinvent himself. This combination could have well been the conception of what we know today as hip-hop, or pop music. Michael’s new sound was the type of phenomenon that left “the entire house bumping and dancing” (Langford 1).
This new style of music that Michael brought was going to be popular. So popular in fact, his album released in 1982, Thriller, still holds the record for largest sales of all time (“Biography on M.J.”). In 1984, Michael attended the Grammies, only to walk home with eight of them. By the end of the eighties, Michael was named “Artist of the Decade.” All of his success in the eighties is the evidence of how Michael has used reinvention within his music to gain icon status.
Another way Michael has used reinvention to gain more from his audience was in the way he produced his videos. Michael’s videos such as Thriller and Dangerous brought a wonderful performance of theatrics and pyrotechnics. Michael worked with the best directors and producers, using the latest technology and special effects combined with fantastic dancing and choreography, to produce exceptional music videos, with a start, a middle and an ending. This reinvention of music videos, served to increase, yet again, his status as an American Icon. His videos bring him close to his audience – letting the people at home watching MTV identify with the “music, lyrics, images, and persona of Jackson” (Lynch 1). Michael’s videos “have great stories. Some are sentimental, while others represent real life situations” (Daneault 1). At home in the living rooms of America is where Michael became personal to his audience.
Michael Jackson is famous for his makeovers in music, performance, and in video, yet he is also famous for makeovers on himself; performance wise and physically. While Michael brought incredible, new energy to his performance, he also brought reinvention to his physical self. Throughout his career, Michael has had several cosmetic operations, which may not have brought the most pleasant reviews, but has definitely increased his following in some fashion or another. There are entire books and websites devoted to the ways in which Michael Jackson has used plastic surgery to reinvent himself through the years. It has been criticized by many journalists that Michael Jackson started out as a black child, and has surgically altered himself into something new. This may very well be true. While it is not the most sought after and accepted venue to choose, Michael has changed himself from a black boy to something that can be seen as unisexual, and uniracial. This may seem a bit far-fetched, but through reinvention, Michael has opened himself up to all audiences, unprejudiced by race or gender. This reinvention by desegregation can be argued to present yet another attribute to his iconic status. By rebirthing himself into something completely neutral, Michael Jackson can represent the success of the American dream for any American, by including all angles of sex, race, or gender.
America has loved Michael Jackson for decades. We adored the lead singer of Jackson 5, and could not get enough of his new styles of music and performance throughout the 80’s and 90’s. Michael Jackson has brought to each of us a story of our heart’s desire – the American dream. Michael started off small, in a large family, but through great talent and constant reinvention has shaped himself into one of the greatest icons of American pop culture – The King of Pop.
“Biography on Michael Jackson.” All Michael Jackson. http://www.allmichaeljackson.com/biography.html.
Carrigan, Michelle. J5 Influences The Jivy Jackson 5 Page. http://members.aol.com/mikeljaxn/jacksons/essay.htm.
Daneault, Jacqueline. Personal Interview. 27 March 2004.
“Icon.” The New International Webster’s Dictionary and Thersaurus of the English Language. 3rd ed. Boston: Trident Press International. 2003
Langford, John. Telephone Interview. 25 March 2004.
Lynch,Christopher. “Ritual Transformation through Michael Jackson’s Music Video.” Journal of Communication Inquiry Volume 25. 01 April 2001. 114-31.
Martinec, Radan. “Construction of Identity in Michael Jackson’s Jam.” Social Semiotics. December 2000 Vol. 10, Issue 3. 313-17.
Wohl, Alaxander. “Charting the career of Michael Jackson.” Biography September 1997 Vol. 1, Issue 9 10-17.