‘Artist’ is a term that has been thrown around so often since the 20th century that the essence of the word has almost lost all meaning. We find ourselves in a situation now where nearly every musical performer is described as an artist. But the true nature of an artist is that of a skilled creator, a maestro of a chosen field.
In this series we look at a select group of individuals who undoubtedly changed the face of popular music and look at what set them apart from everything that had come before.
Jackson is one of the true innovators of the 20th century with a musical repertoire that is only overshadowed by only a handful of other acts. Perhaps the most logical place to start describing his journey to becoming an ‘artist’ is 1979’s Off the Wall.
The Birth of the Artist
very much represented a personal liberation for Jackson, shrugging off his image as child star and beginning to write and co-produce (with the great Quincy Jones) many of his own songs. Off the Wall is almost a love letter to the disco scene that had dominated the popular music charts for much of the 1970s but much like the Beatles’ White Album it kind of closed the door on what had gone before. After the success of Off the Wall there was really no point in trying to rekindle the traditional disco sound because it just wouldn’t be as good.
Yes, it is very disco and yes, you can dance to it, but there is an undeniable feeling that there is just something that sets this record apart that exists beyond its large collection of influences, compositional complexity, or lyrical positivity. In the same way that great music can give you goosebumps or shivers, Off the Wall makes you feel like you’ve had a few drinks, lowered your inhibitions, and that you can just enjoy the world for a while.
Staying Ahead of the Rest
Fast forward 22 years. With Thriller, Bad, Dangerous, and HIStory all behind him, the biggest pop singer on the planet, shrouded with mystery and controversy, releases what is to be his last feature length album Invincible.
Invincible peaked at number one all over the world, sold millions of copies, and was still deemed by many as a failure. Listening now, it seems like songs such as “You Rock My World” were better than almost all of the other R&B hits at the time. Jackson was 42 when the album was released and as innovative as ever.
Much like Off the Wall, Invincible sort of gives a nod to popular music of the previous decade, but takes it in a completely new and different direction, unconcerned with restriction or expectation.
This is for us what makes Jackson a true artist. There was no catching up or fear of staying relevant; it was making music for himself, and that genuine enjoyment was perhaps what people held dear about his music.