Tracing back Michael Jackson’s influence on the pop stars that followed him is quite a challenging task. Imagine trying to trace the influence of oxygen and gravity, it’s pretty much in the same ball park. His impact was so huge and extensive – predominantly in the wake of Thriller‘s massive and unparalleled moneymaking success – that there weren’t a whole lot of artists who weren’t trying to imitate some of this magical Jackson ‘formula’.
Olimpus wanted to give our loyal readers a recap of the pop stars who pay tribute to the Pop King’s arsenal.
Timberlake trailed Jackson’s career curve perfectly: starting out as the cute one in a popular, adorable boy band, progressively developing an individual personality that eclipsed and then surpassed his fellow group members, and finally launched a go-getting and greatly successful solo career. If you’re not sure whether Timberlake’s first song owed a too-palpable debt to Jackson, try playing “Rock Your Body” and “Rock With You” back-to-back sometime. This will certainly clear any shadow of a doubt. He soon outgrew simple imitation, fashioning a follow-up that dabbled in multiple genres without owing a clear debt to any, creating his own individual style.
The original and most noticeable Jackson follower of the ’90s era, Usher had both an idiosyncratic voice and laser-accurate dancing aptitude. But what worked for Usher was his ability – like Jackson’s – to move beyond simple pop balladry and progress to a pure, individual artistic image – dancing like the smooth criminal he was paying homage to. Like Thriller, Usher’s Confessions incorporated a myriad of styles, opening with an intense crank classic and slowly giving way to a sequence of fresh ballads. Usher borrowed Jackson’s best elements, starting with modest, low-upkeep pop songs and progressively budding into an artist of stature and class.
Apart from his own thread of hits, Ne-Yo has even co-written chart-toppers for other pop stars like Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable.” Ne-Yo emanates maturity and style, but his best moments – like the elusive ballad “So Sick” or the whip-crack dance number “Nobody” – both of which could have easily been lifted from any of Jackson’s early records. The way Ne-Yo clips and dishes his serenade across old-school R&B rhythms is textbook vintage Michael, and his dexterity with the pen could effortlessly find him penning this generation’s “We Are the World.”
What would this list be without the Queen B? Cue up any given track from her B’Day album, whether the stammering “Get Me Bodied” or the blazing “Ring the Alarm,” and hear Michael Jackson’s trickle-down effect. Her contemporaries may have Jackson’s pop flair, but only Beyoncé owns his fierceness. The agile tenacity of “Survivor” and “Independent Women” are distant cousins to Jackson’s dimmer, callous numbers like “Give it to Me”, and Beyoncé’s steady revolution from bright-eyed naivety to the new First Lady of Soul, contends with Jackson’s own rise to power.
In a sense, the above appropriations are fitting. After all, Jackson himself had his fair share of influences. He wasn’t satisfied in making a pop record or a dance record. As an alternative, he wanted everything, coalescing rock guitar with R&B rhythms, disco strings and the funk of 40,000 years – the music world was his oyster.
The production on “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” is still baffling and magnificent, combining a faltering R&B bassline with old-style African call-and-response hymns. Who was doing that then? And perhaps an even more noteworthy question, who’s thought of doing it since? While Jackson will never have an equivalent, he’s always had a steady string of disciples, ready and eager to apply his novelties to their own unique way.
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