University of Rochester

Rock, Pop Historian John Covach Assesses Michael Jackson

June 25, 2009

University of Rochester Music Historian John Covach describes Michael Jackson as "one of the world's great entertainers and a pivotal figure in the history of American music." Covach, professor of music and chair of the Department of Music at the University of Rochester and professor of music theory at the Eastman School of Music, reacted to Jackson's sudden death with this assessment:

"Michael Jackson is arguably the most important figure in 1980s popular music. Though he got his start as a child singing a series of hits in the 1970s with his brothers in the Jackson 5, Jackson's ascent to the status of The King of Pop occurred as a solo artist. The 1982 album Thriller was one of the biggest albums the music business had ever witnessed, containing several top hits, including "Billy Jean" and "Beat It." As impressive as the music on that record is (thanks in no small part to the production mastery of Quincy Jones), it was the videos that made the strongest impact. In fact, the power and popularity of Jackson's videos to "Thriller," "Beat It," and Billie Jean" helped MTV to rise as a force in the music industry, even as it helped Jackson sell more records. It was a symbiotic relationship that changed popular music forever.

"Jackson's career touched on so many important aspects of pop-music history in the second half of the 20th century. Signed initially to Motown by Berry Gordy Jr., the Jackson 5 became a kind of bubblegum version of the Temptations, continuing the crossover tradition with catchy songs and choreographed dance steps. As the hippie rock of the 1970s was challenged by punk, new wave, and disco late in the decade, nobody was better positioned than Michael Jackson to bring together well-produced music with exceptional and exciting dance steps. His Off the Wall album of 1979 certainly ranks as one of the best records to come out of the disco years.

"Younger fans of pop music may have to be reminded how incredibly powerful Michael Jackson's music was in the 1980s. More than that, Jackson defined "cool" during those years. The single glove, his patented moonwalk step, that slightly rebellious yet gentle demeanor—all this youthful charm slipped away over time, as it does for all of us. But at the height of his powers, Michael Jackson was one of the world's great entertainers and a pivotal figure in the history of American music. That's how he should be remembered."

Covach is the author of "What's That Sound? An Introduction to Rock and Its History" and co-editor of "Understanding Rock."




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