There was a time, not very long ago, when Michael Jackson was indeed the undisputed king of pop, ruling the charts and the airwaves with an exciting, charged and highly individual style. That was 1982, when an album he made called Thriller revolutionized the music industry and went on to sell more than 40 million copies worldwide.
Today, no one sells albums at Thriller's level: Last year's top-selling album, Usher's Confessions, sold more than 8 million copies. Thriller, in its first year of release, sold 26 million.
And while the pop legend - found not guilty Monday of child molestation charges - hasn't announced how or if he plans to resurrect his career, one thing is certain: Neither Jackson nor any other act today can repeat the mammoth success of Thriller.
The reasons are many. The drastic changes in the way music is marketed today make such a thing next to impossible. In the 23 years since Thriller hit the streets, radio and MTV, two of the main vehicles used to boost Jackson to superstardom, have become incredibly fragmented and specialized, respectively.
"In 1982, music wasn't as accessible as it is now," says Peter Shankman, president of the Geek Factory, a public relations/branding firm in New York City. "You had two choices if you wanted a new song: You got the 45 or you taped it off the radio. ... Record companies had a much greater control over what you listened to and what got on the radio then."
Mighty CBS, Jackson's label at the time (now Sony-BMG Music), put its weight behind Thriller, the follow-up to Jackson's multiplatinum 1979 classic, Off the Wall. It was a smart move as the album, slickly produced by the masterful Quincy Jones, featured something for everybody. And though radio formats were much narrower at the time, songs from Thriller could easily fit rock, pop, soul and Quiet Storm stations.
Upon Thriller's release, CBS issued two singles simultaneously - "Billie Jean" for the urban market and "Beat It" for the pop-rock demographic - hoping both would crack the Top 10 at the same time. This calculated, crossover formula wasn't completely new: The blueprint had been set with Off the Wall, which was funkier and edgier than Thriller. But in 1979, a cable station called MTV wasn't around to help push Jackson and the second album of his adult solo career. Three years later, though, the fledgling channel would help fuel the artist's global explosion.
"Every single factor came together, especially with the dawn of the video age, which is when Thriller came out," says Deborah Wilker, senior editor of Amusement Business, the industry chronicle of live entertainment, and a bureau chief at the Hollywood Reporter. "Michael Jackson was the first and last MTV video star that produced an incredibly rich, textured sound that matched the visual."
In 1982, MTV, only a year old at the time, catered mostly to white audiences who bought rock music. It was Jackson who broke the color barrier when the stunningly surrealistic clip for "Billie Jean" aired on MTV on March 2, 1982, one week after the single rocketed to No. 1 on Billboard's pop charts. Just a few weeks later, the video for "Beat It" premiered on the station. Directed by the great Broadway choreographer Michael Peters, it looked like a 'hood version of West Side Story replete with fluid, complex dance moves. In the video, Jackson spun, snapped and popped, resplendent in a studded red leather jacket. After that, MTV was never the same and sales for Thriller skyrocketed.
Call it harmonic convergence.
"Back in the '80s, Michael Jackson had a number of things going for him," says Mark Anthony Neal, author and associate professor of black popular culture in the program in African and African-American studies at Duke University. "One was the incredible production. Quincy Jones had a good feel for what was good music in the United States. He was able to help musicians cross over, make the music accessible for a mass audience. Michael Jackson was also a phenomenal performer. ... [He] brilliantly crafted an asexual persona for himself. He wasn't threatening. That was a big part of his success."
In 1982, radio and MTV were the main vehicles through which music fans heard what was fresh. And in the two years that followed Thriller's release, Jackson seemingly owned both. But later in the decade, popular music tastes shifted. Bad, Jackson's 1987 follow-up to Thriller, sold half the copies of its predecessor, though it managed to generate five chart-topping singles. The aggressive hip-hop of acts like Run-DMC began to steal some of his popularity, and Jackson seemed to become less accessible, his behavior more erratic and his appearance more bizarre.
As for radio and MTV, they were no longer the sole arbiters of what was cool. Formats became much more diverse as the pop audience splintered, a trend that has only accelerated today.
"Things are so specialized now," Neal says. "You can listen to alternative country or contemporary country. Hip-hop station. Classic soul and R&B; stations. ... MTV doesn't show videos anymore. It's really hard for the masses of folks to hear the one artist who can speak across gender and race and sexuality."
And music marketers are more savvy about getting music out, finding more creative avenues to success than simply waiting for songs to hit on radio and MTV. The rock band U2, for instance, cut a deal with Apple computers to sell custom iPods preloaded with its new album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, released in November. Eclectic pop artist Beck debuted five tracks from his latest album, Guero, on a March 10 episode of the teen show The O.C. (About two weeks later, his album entered Billboard's pop charts at No. 2.) And the British pop band Coldplay launched its single, "The Speed of Sound," as a ringtone on Cingular Wireless cell phones six days before the song reached radio in April and months before the band's new album, X&Y;, hit stores.
Video games and satellite radio are other available musical venues in today's fragmented industry. It's highly unlikely that one artist could rule such an environment the way Jackson's music and image inundated radio and MTV in the 1980s.
"As a society, we're kind of desensitized today," Shankman says. "Michael Jackson ushered in something so new, something we needed during Reaganomics. His music was upbeat enough for the kids and safe enough for the parents. He made millions of white kids think erroneously that they could dance. Hey, the man was the king. He can never be [again] what he was and it's unfair to think he could be."
Sun staff writer Dan Thanh Dang contributed to this article.