All Wail the King of Pop

I must admit I was not surprised when I knew about Michael Jackson’s death. I was sorry but not surprised. He lived the last twenty years of his life on the edge and the constant, worrying news about his health were supposed to lead to this sad end. I’m sure this moment will mark the end of an era: Jackson was part of our imagery (just like Elvis Presley or John Lennon), he influenced the careers of many artists and left an important mark on the history of style and music. As a teenager, I often listened to his music – from Off the Wall (which I consider his best work) to Bad (I loved the ballads in this album) – and strongly admired him for his unique dancing moves (he was a terrific dancer, wasn’t he?) and for his amazing music videos [1]. The freakshow which he was protagonist of in recent years and the questionable choices in his private life can’t be ignored but don’t reduce his role in modern pop music.

As for his style, it has always been taken as a source of inspiration. Balmain’s Christophe Decarnin [2], for example, probably thought of Jackson’s military jackets when he designed the jackets with big shoulders for his latest collection. If I think about Michael’s style evolution during his career, I am convinced it reached its peak at the beginning. Take a look at the covers of his solo albums Off the Wall (1979) and Thriller (1982): he posed for the cover shoot wearing classic tailor suits – a tuxedo [3] and a white suit with a black shirt. In both outfits he was elegant and absolutely perfect.

When he was only 20, he played the role of the scarecrow in The Wiz by Sidney Lumet, The Wizard of Oz with an all-black cast. In this occasion, he had the chance to work with Diana Ross (who will become one of his closest friends); he worked on the soundtrack of the movie with Quincy Jones, who was going to become very important for his career (he produced both Off the Wall and Thriller). His outfit during the premiere of the movie screams 70s (the ruffled shirt, the jacquard jacket), yet it is quite elegant.

Jackson soon left the formal suits and started experimenting with style. One of his favourite outfits was made of slim pants, white or sequined t-shirt, a sequined jacket and his trademarks – a fedora hat and the infamous Swarovski-encrusted single glove. He kept on playing with this combo all through his career: the first pic was shot in the 80s, the second in the 90s, but the outfits are quite the same. I think this is Michael’s best stage look: elegant, refined, but also funky and funny, with all those sequins. If I had the chance to dress like him, I would surely wear this outfit.

Britney Spears is one of the artists who have always claimed Jackson as a source of inspiration. I believe Britney paid homage to Michael’s stage outfit when she performed at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2000:  she hit the stage wearing a lurex pin-stripe suit and a fedora hat, revealing underneath a gorgeous nude sequined bra and pants. This is surely Britney’s best live performance, in my opinion: her body, hair and dance routine were terrific and her outfit sexy without being trashy.

During social events and performances Jackson loved wearing a military jacket (all sequined, with embroideries), a white shirt underneath and slim tuxedo pants. The accessories were mirror aviator sunglasses and the aforesaid crystal-encrusted glove. The glove he wore during live performances had no Swarovski crystals on the palm, because he had to hold the microphone.

In 1984 Jackson visited the White House and was given an award for his support of charities that helped people overcome alcohol and drug abuse. During his meeting with Nancy and Ronald Reagan, he wore one of his famous military jacket, in royal blue and gold. During those years he also started experimenting with a more futuristic style, as we can notice from the white jacket he wore while meeting Elizabeth Taylor (another of his closest friends).

As I said before, Balmain military jackets have clearly been ispired to Jackson’s glittering outfits and they have reached a huge commercial success. Beyonce and Rihanna (who both claim Jackson to be among their heroes) wore jackets from the Spring/Summer 2009 collection. Beyonce chose a black jacket with big shoulders and silver embroideries on the front, on the sleeves and on the shoulders. The same style was seen on Vogue Japan fashion director at large, the fashion-forward Anna dello Russo.

Rihanna chose a denim jacket with the trademark tennis ball shoulders, pairing it to a simple t-shirt and white shorts. Don’t you think RiRi here channelled Jackson’s curly hairstyle, too?

When it comes to the visual arts, Jackson was really a pioneer, because he was the first to foresee the incredible potentialities of music videos. I perfectly remember the first time I watched Thriller: I was shocked because it was shot like a short movie and paid homage to the horror movies I loved (from George Romero‘s zombie saga to Landis’ An American Werewolf in London); moreover, the narrator was Vincent Price, one of my personal heroes. The zombies dancing along with Michael and his red and black leather jacket will always remain in the music video history. Another video I have always loved is Beat It [4], where the theme of street gangs and violence was treated. The song is beautiful (Eddie Van Halen played the guitar solo) and the mass dance routine in the video is simply amazing. In this case, Jackson wore another red leather jacket, with gold studs on the shoulders.

Michael’s partner in Thriller was Ola Ray, who wore a nice leopard-printed ensemble, along with a red t-shirt and red accessories. Michael’s red leather jacket with black details had peculiar ‘space’ shoulders, a style which has been largely copied.

Justin Timberlake, for example, wore an exact copy of it, but in white, in Gnarls Barkley’s Run music video. Speaking of Timberlake, I cannot help but underlining how much he has been influenced by Michael Jackson’s music and (dance) style. His first solo album, Justified, clearly pays homage to the 70s funky disco music (think of Rock Your Body); in the gorgeous video for Like I Love You, directed by Diane Martel, the dance routine and Justin’s outfit (his fedora hat, the gloves) refer to Michael’s.

Last but not least, here is Chris Brown, wearing another copy of Michael’s red and black leather jacket, during his performance at the World Music Awards in 2006, when he gave a rendition of Thriller. I am not impressed by his vocals at all, but his dancing style is terrific and this is even clearer in his excellent performance at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2007 (Rihanna did a short appearance during his performance). It is terrible what happened to this couple, he is so to blame for what he did to his former girlfriend, but I think he is actually the closest thing that even comes close to Jackson (as for his dancing abilities).

Before closing this post, I’d like to express my feelings about this loss. I think Jackson lived a wonderful yet terrible life, haunted by the ghosts of a childhood he hadn’t lived (he started his career when he was only five) and by a Peter Pan-like dream of staying forever young. Once adult, he created a private amusement park and home at Neverland Ranch, filled with any possible type of games – from The Simpsons and Star Trek pinball machines to Zoltar the Fortune Teller Machine, to life-size models of Star Wars characters – where to live the carefree days he had never had before.  His rise was followed by a terrible fall, when his music was put aside and all his dreams went bad (the cosmetic surgery, the trial, the crucifixion by the media, his senseless and weird behaviour, all the rumours about his lifestyle). Now he’s gone and all the scandals have gone with him, but we have his music, his dancing and his music videos to remember him with.

[1] Everyone remembers the short movie Thriller, directed by John Landis, but I absolutely love Scream, directed by the great Mark Romanek: Michael shot this futuristic video with his sister Janet. Most of his videos are really innovative and interesting: think of Remember the Time with Iman and Eddie Murphy, In the Closet by Herb Ritts, with Naomi Campbell, Liberian Girl with an all-star cast and many more.

[2] Maybe it is just a coincidence, but Michael Jackson was recently spotted wearing Balmain (and Givenchy) clothes. It was probably his way to thank Decarnin for the homage to his style.

[3] He wore a tuxedo with white socks and loafers in Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough and looked amazing.

[4] As a fan of Fame, I’d like to remember that Michael De Lorenzo, one of the best dancers in the tv show, was part of the dancing crew in Beat It.

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6 comments

  1. I absolutely LOVE your site and your touching tribute to Michael Jackson. Additionally, you broke down all of the fashion influences that new artists seem to neglect. I feel like a lot don’t openly say ” yes, this was inspired by Michael” they often will just use the word “vintage or 80’s”.

    Beautiful!

  2. Thanks🙂 I’m glad you like my blog.
    I think Michael’s influence on style is undeniable, so I don’t understand why new artists don’t openly say that they’ve been inspired by him. I’ve appreciated Justin Timberlake, Chris Brown and Britney Spears because they’ve always said that they’ve been idolizing Jackson since they were kids. Anyway, now he’s gone, every single celebrity is jumping on the sorrowful bandwagon, and this is quite hypocritical, in my opinion.

  3. You speak my mind!
    (Eccetto su Chris Brown dal quale non sono per nulla impressionata…)
    Io ho postato una sua foto e sotto ho scritto solo “We’re all pop culture” perchè al di là della sua vita travagliata e opinabile (al pari di molti altri grandi artisti) la sua importanza culturale, non solo dal punto di vista musicale, è innegabile. Hai scritto un post bellissimo, rispettoso, interessantissimo e mai retorico!
    (Ehi, non per niente sono una tua fan da molto tempo!)

    1. That Margiela nylon jacket is awesome. I love it in black with red details as seen on Pharrell Williams. Please let me know, should you buy it: I’d love to update this post with a pic of you wearing it.

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