Michael Jackson. A reflection on some features of a success like few in history

Luca Izzo
Doctorant et professeur d’Histoire de l’Art au lycée de Naples


The focus of the research is the phenomenology linked to the success of Michael Jackson’s artistic career which was a cultural, artistic and popular phenomenon among the greatest in history. Jackson has built global success thanks to the combination of several determining factors: an undeniable natural talent, a career started as a child, a lifelong desire for perfectionism, research and innovation, etc. This research focuses on reconstructing and demonstrating how Jackson was inspired not by mainstream trends, but by his ideal as an artist, perhaps of the “Renaissance” type, as well as by the wish for producing a “total art” expression.

Keywords: influences; perfectionism; synaesthetic art; innovations.


Michael Jackson managed to establish himself, according to titles and polls, among the very first most influential and pervasive artists of the contemporary age: in 2000 the World Music Awards recognized him as the “male artist of the millennium”; in 2002 the American Music Awards honored Jackson as “artist of the century”; in 2006 the Guinness Book of World Records and the World Music Awards officially declared Michael Jackson the best-selling solo artist ever, while a public poll conducted by the Channel 4 television channel found that Michael Jackson was “the most famous person of all time” immediately after Jesus and Mohammed. Although these titles certainly cannot frame a much more complex reality, it certainly cannot be overlooked that Jackson – even though he was born in a poor and colored family in Indiana, in the American musical context still marked by racial discrimination – managed to clearly affect the history of popular music, contemporary dance, video-music and stage costume, also influencing many other areas of contemporary culture, from fashion to advertising, from entertainment to television, from figurative arts to cinema, etc., all on a global scale. This enormous popular success (to which only the Beatles and Elvis Presley data come close), which made him present on the magazines of every country and for every useless reason, accompanied by sponsorships of consumer goods and all kinds of gadgets, not infrequently contributed to create an image of the Michael Jackson artist mistakenly close to the mass of summer hits’ musicians, also leading him to be targeted by critics on a par with mainstream standards. What happened, then, in the last years of the artist’s life, that is the accusations of pedophilia and the withdrawal to a private life without producing anything (except for the two partially realized projects, namely the album Invincible and the This Is It tour) certainly did not help to maintain, in the global popular memory, the artistic and cultural image that Jackson had been able to represent in the 1980s and 1990s.

This research was carried out with the aim of opening a “pure” reflection – in the sense of stripped of any kind of prejudice – on the artistic model that Jackson has been, on the ideal model he pursued and communicated, in order to better frame the author and his research and, consequently, the cultural heritage he has transmitted and which he still transmits with strong incisiveness to new generations of creatives.


The research focuses on data that can help, like pieces of a mosaic, to reconstruct Jackson’s artistic intentions and ideals and see if – and how – these have influenced his productive choices. Given that there can be no doubts about the artist’s will to achieve the greatest possible success also in terms of audience and sales (the recent years’ releases report clear data[1]) – even a logical consequence for a person who grew up in the show business since he was a child and who perceived the success he was able to collect to be the only way of social redemption (moreover it must be kept in mind that in the whole history of human societies art has always been linked to the market, with a very partial weakening, exclusively for some trends and very few artists, only in the last one hundred and fifty years, moreover almost never involving even the performing arts and cinema, productions that require very large budgets) – this, however, as the same research texts have shown in recent years, and as all Jacksonian production already expressed, does not mean that the American artist has managed himself and his professional strategies and methodologies on the basis of mainstream indications. Indeed, on closer inspection, many episodes, interviews and texts from authoritative sources, and then artistic and personal choices, etc., return a completely different image of Jackson, who seemed to be – contrary to what the world press has sold and built as his public image – a man of considerable culture[2], artist of choices, values and ideals that went far beyond the most functional fashions and strategies on a commercial level.

Some fundamental and innovative features of Jackson’s success are already the material of interesting researches and publications that have alternated and powered starting from the artist’s death up to today, such as: the great innovations of the Thriller album, from the so-called “crossover” songs to the new dimension given to music video clips, or “short-films”, as Jackson used to define his audiovisual products; from the abolition of racial privileges, which still marked the international music scene, to a new and very personal expression of choreography and entertainment, which inevitably set off the birth of a global culture tending towards video-music, etc.

Given the areas of research and debate already addressed on an international scale, this research was carried out also to try to open new windows of reflection on Jackson’s artistic conduct, namely:

– 1) the example, received and pursued, of his idols, admittedly loved;

– 2) the desire to produce a total art, which puts in synergy the different artistic languages and which deals with themes from the subjective to the universal;

– 3) the innovative and transmedia strategies used for his products.

Starting from the first point, it needs to be borne in mind that Jackson has repeatedly declared his love for Michelangelo Buonarroti[3], Charlie Chaplin[4] and Walt Disney[5]. Considering that the American artist had and wanted to train, as a child, by admiring and studying the examples of the masters of black-music, as he himself has repeatedly admitted both in various interviews and in his autobiographical text Moonwalk[6], it is logical to consider that Jackson lived the passion for his three beloved idols also as examples to follow. In fact, it cannot be a coincidence that Jackson’s three idols correspond to:

  • manic perfectionists, people who have sacrificed their entire lives, since childhood, in order to learn and make the most of their respective arts (just like Jackson’s personality[7] and life. So, in particular toward Charlie Chaplin and Michelangelo Buonarroti, Jackson also had to feel a particular sense of empathy);
  • professionals who have always and constantly proved to be in search, often tormented, of a perfect rendering of their creations, also expressed in the wish for controlling every phase of their productions even when these, for professional needs, were delegated to third parties;
  • artists who have never abandoned the search for innovations of languages, techniques and technologies, never, however, sacrificing the final and possibly objective beauty of the product.

All aspects that have also characterized Michael Jackson’s life and career.

This can be found in many of Jackson’s choices: such as that of monitoring all the steps of his productions, from musical to audiovisual products, from choreography to scenography, costumes, screenplays, etc .; in the obsessive search for creating a perfect product, choosing the songs to be included in the track-list on hundreds of composed or collected songs, or when he chose, for each album and for each song, the most suitable collaborators, even if already individually accomplished (first of all in the cases of Quincy Jones, Eddie van Halen, Toto, Run DMC, Slash, Carlos Santana, etc., or the directors considered more suitable for each planned short-film, starting from the Thriller masterpiece made with John Landis, and then Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Spike Lee, etc.); when, although satisfied with the state of play, he asked to try again or re-record dozens of more times, personally guiding all the sessions (very Chaplinian modus operandi), in search of a possible better version; when, convinced of a certain artistic project, he decided to self-produce in order to freely realize what he had in mind, as in the emblematic case of the short-film Thriller (another strongly Chaplinian element).

Moreover, among these great artists, the choice of the main themes dealt with also coincides: union between peoples, solidarity towards others, as well as, at least for Buonarroti, the deepening of an ideal relationship between man and God, aspects that have always characterized Jacksonian poetics. Michelangelo, in the Sistine frescoes, despite the directives of the clergy, of Julius II and then of Clement VII, has created a very personal compendium of his personality, of his researches, of his creed and his moral and spiritual values, in which they meet Greek-Eastern philosophies, pagan and other Jewish elements, both Catholic and Evangelical Christianity, but also brotherhood among peoples[8] and a neoplatonic vision of the man-divinity relationship, all elements that we find – reworked in a personal and contemporary way – as protagonists, in large part, also in Jacksonian production (for the theme of solidarity between peoples, it is enough to mention We are the World, Man in the Mirror, Heal the World, Black or White, Earth Song, and others, while for the man-god relationship, just see the song Speechless and, very eloquent, the rhymes published in the volume Dancing the Dream[9]). Jackson agreed with Buonarroti even in feeling like a “God’s instrument”, from which he would have had his particular talent as a gift in order to offer it – in beauty Buonarroti, in beauty and solidarity Jackson – to the whole world[10]; even in the allegories, Jackson evokes Michelangelo: as the Florentine artist, in the Last Judgment of the Sistine, he painted himself as skinned by the rumors and prejudices of others, as Jackson, in the Ghosts short-film, portrays himself as a puppet and then as a skeleton, that is a body skinned by judgments of the society.

Solidarity between populations and between people, towards others and for the social classes with more problems, have also been the central themes of all Chaplinian production[11]; feature films such as A Dog’s Life, The Kid, The Gold Rush, Modern Times or the final part of The Great Dictator, could represent – thematically – the film versions of songs such as Man in the Mirror, Heal the World, Earth Song, They don’t care about us, Cry and some of the rhymes from Dancing the Dream. Nonetheless, themes such as the protection and enhancement of the childhood age, the fantastic creation and the escape in an “other” world, conceived in the show, characterized by harmony and beauty, childhood adventures, purity and naivety, show a direct connection with the work of Walt Disney, another Jacksonian idol, another artist and producer accomplished at the top of the global scale, just like Chaplin and Jackson himself.

Regarding the second point, however, considering that Michael Jackson’s training, in the field of black-music, had already required him to work and develop more skills, from interpretative to musical, from choreographic and stage skills, then, with maturity, even those of writing and composition, in addition to discovering himself, in the Eighties, among the most loved, capable and pervasive artists in the world (also verifying that people followed him and emulated him in every corner of the planet) and having also baptized his screenwriting and acting skills, it follows with logic – and supported by some data that will be reported later – to conclude that Jackson began to think of himself as a possible creator of an idea of “total art”, which could range from music to dance, from short films (as he preferred to conceive them, at the expense of music video standards) to cinema (based on the experiences of The Wiz, Captain EO and Moonwalker) from the live show (in the Eighties the American artist had completed two tours, one in the USA, the Victory Tour, the other on a world scale, the Bad World Tour, reporting record successes), to fashion (in the Eighties Jackson was able to affirm, on an international level, various details of clothing – on stage and not – which, from that moment on, in the collective memory, began to be almost inextricably associated with the American artist, such as wearing only one glove, black loafers with the contrast of white socks, red leather jacket, revisited military jackets, a particular model of sunglasses, felt hat, etc.), up to graphics (his own drawings included in the Thriller album, the photographic virtuosity of the Bad album, the very unique cover of Dangerous, etc.) and the circus (which inspired him to create conjuring tricks staged in his live shows).

Authoritative testimonies tell how much Michael Jackson wanted to become “the greatest show in the world”[12], while his works highlight how, for a better communicative-spectacular result, the artist always tended to merge together, synergistically, several artistic languages, from music and singing to dance and choreography (of which he himself was the creator), from script to acting and bodily mime, from video and cinema to scenography and computer graphics (see the Speed Demon, Leave me Alone, Black or White short-films, etc.), to stage costumes (almost always designed by Jackson himself, very particular the one of the Thriller short-film, of the Billie Jean live performance, of the Remember the Time, Scream, Stranger in the Moscow short-films etc.) and, occasionally, also to circus and illusionistic effects. Furthermore, there is evidence that Jackson understood that the show he produced was a sort of “immersive media universe” spread everywhere thanks to the media, which conveyed his image, his music, his dance moves and his messages. This led him even to consider strategies, or jokes, bizarre, media experiments, feasible as possible phenomena of spectacle supporting his artistic productions, so much that from about the mid-Eighties onwards, he wanted to strategically build an image of him as of “alien”, a mysterious being, different from the masses, convinced that he would have fascinated the public in a particular way[13]. In this wake, the ambiguous news of the artist who used to sleep in a hyperbaric chamber was born, in order not to get old, the news of the willingness to buy the bones of Joseph Merrick, the so-called “elephant man”, etc., but starting from these dynamics, then, the press produced many others of them which, although false as the previous ones, contributed to creating a presence of Jackson in the media all over the world, with unprecedented and unprecedented intensity.

In framing the concept that Jackson could have regarding possible expressions of “total and synaesthetic art”, it must be made clear that there are no traces that can prove the artist’s knowledge about the historical-artistic debate concerning that point, born precisely from a musician, Richard Wagner (according to whom the “total” work of art – the most widespread translation of the Wagnerian gesamtkunstwerk – had to be based on a true synergistic fusion of different artistic languages, creating an inseparable whole aimed at the same realization objectives, in which the different artistic languages, exalting each other, compete together for an enhancement of the communicative-representative skills of the work) and then developed until today, passing through the experimentation of names such as Stéphane Mallarmé (which, as happens in Jacksonian performances, promoted rhythm as a unifying and coordinating element for all other expressive languages), Adolphe Appia, Vasilij Vasilevic Kandinskij (who also promoted music, as a whole, as a unifying and coordinating element), up to the present day, in which from the Eighties onwards, with the advent of digital, it is precisely the contribution technology to allow new possibilities and forms of fusion between the arts, just think of the forms of audiovisual production and possible special effects, which Jackson has always held in strong consideration for his short films, or electronic music, web-art, extended and augmented realities, which Jackson was giving birth to as the protagonist in a live concert for his This Is It tour. It is clear, however, that in addition to the dynamics of his professional life, as previously mentioned, Jackson had been led to form a concept of total art precisely starting from the example of his idols who, as previously mentioned, have expressed themselves through multiple artistic languages, always synergistically fused together (Buonarroti inserted the sculptural style in painting and, in the Sistine, also fake architectures, Chaplin fused together script, acting, body mime, direction and music, while Disney, born from painting, then developed his path with animation, cinema, screenplays, drawing, choreography, music, etc.).

Regarding the third point, a start of research and reflection has been already started by some research articles[14], and there is no lack of very interesting reflections on the texts dedicated to the artist in the last twelve years. The proposal of the undersigned is aimed at analyzing if – and how – Jackson has been innovative in the use of the different media available from time to time. From early studies it appears that the American artist, especially in the Eighties, proved to be very innovative through a skillful transmedia transmission of his artistic works and his image as a star. Just think of the promotion of the Thriller album, for which, in addition to the disc, television appearances were produced (memorable the one at the Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever in 1983), musical short-films (one of which, Thriller, even had a film premiere and an Oscar nomination), videotapes, live tours and all sorts of themed gadgets and clothing. Furthermore, the aforementioned research article reflects on how much the short-films of the album, and in particular that of Thriller, represent an anticipation, of about twenty years, of what will later be defined fashion-films, auteur products, with various cinematographic experiments, even if for promotional purposes. In the Eighties and early Nineties, alongside Jackson’s albums, live world tours, auteur teasers, video cassettes and specific TV shows, video games for all types of private consoles and for hall videogames, films, documentaries, clothing, all kinds of gadgets, even the most unusual to complement the image of a musician, such as dolls, chewing gum, perfumes, drinks, etc. These are propaganda and spread strategies that, in the actual digital age, have established themselves as decisive for achieving international success, just think of the fact that all major productions, nowadays, are necessarily presented through multiple media, such as TV, cinema. , websites, apps, video games, etc.


The research – in addition to being based on a thirty-year attention to Jackson by the undersigned – developed through two main methods: a first “direct” method, based on the use of all Jackson’s artistic products, musical, audiovisual and literary (Moonwalk, Dancing the Dream, song lyrics and short-film scripts); a second “indirect” method, based on research through accredited sources, archives, audiovisual media, critical texts, accredited websites, interviews, monographs, articles from authoritative journals, meetings with Jackson’s collaborators, scientific articles from various disciplinary sectors.

Research objectives

The research has been developed in an attempt to open – or open more – some areas of reflection on Jackson’s artistic work: dynamics that profile Michael Jackson undoubtedly eager to achieve the maximum possible commercial and public success, but who has almost never allowed himself to be led by these dynamics while, moreover, it seems he has led his professional activity both in the received – and loved – example of his (repeatedly declared) idols, and in the wish, as he said, for becoming “the greatest show of the world ”, coming to make of itself, and to produce, a “total and synaesthetic” artistic expression.


This research has found that there is sufficient data to think – and further investigate – the possibility that several of Jackson’s professional strategies, choices and methodologies have been implemented both in the example that he gave himself through the admiration and love of three personal idols, both in the willingness and in the attempt to achieve a total and synaesthetic artistic expression of himself and his product. Furthermore, it is clear that in some cases, Michael Jackson, called to choose between commercially more profitable strategies or choices more properly linked to personal sensitivity, as Buonarroti and Chaplin did for the entire span of their lives, Jackson chose to have a say, although this would have taken him very far from what the public, and the most widespread professional standards, expected. As in the example of the HIStory. Past, Present and Future. Book 1 album, of which a double CD was published, so at double the price (absolutely wrong maneuver for commercial purposes) in order not to consent to the requests of the label that wanted a greatest hits and, aside, an unreleased album in which Jackson did not share the first one aimed solely for commercial purposes; or the editorial maneuver made with the single by Scream and Childhood, two top songs with which two separate releases of the singles could be published, thus seeing double the copies at least on safe users (fans, collectors, radio, etc. ) but Jackson, in order to respond decisively to the accusations suffered, wanted a single containing a strong and double message, that of denouncing a media system that exploited his image without discretion, of the Scream song, and that of opening, to the public, of his person and his private dimension, with his memories and desires of a childhood never lived, message of the Childhood song. But the same HIStory. Past, Present and Future. Book 1 project, came completely out of the mainstream dynamics of pop music: an album without respite but full of complaints and protests song by song, ending – in the setlist of Jackson’s songs – even with a song that deals with the death of a child, a strong metaphor of the evil that the artist accuses of suffering from the media and, moreover, a clear allegory of the death of the “inner child” that Jackson, on the other hand, was trying to safeguard within himself; album that ends with another not very commercial maneuver, as it focuses on an unreleased song – not by Jackson – but even from the Thirties (music by Charlie Chaplin and added text, in the Fifties, by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons), that is Smile, which Michael Jackson uses – in full respect – just as Chaplin had done in the original elaborate, that ending of the Modern Times film in which the little fellow, and his partner, after many adventures and misfortunes, take hand in hand and react smiling and going towards dawn, as Jackson decides to do with HIStory, in which, after having denounced, song by song, various social and personal battles, with Smile he tells us that, in any case, he will smile and will go on towards a rebirth.

Furthermore, the data collected indicate, almost without margin for error, that Jackson had well understood the possibility of achieving and producing a form of “total and synaesthetic art”, of which, although he probably did not know the history and theories regarding such possible forms of art, it is revealed, however, that both the circumstances of his life and the artistic examples he admired (plus his declared passions towards cartoons, musicals, opera, circus, cinema, painting, drawing) could not fail to lead him to consider such a possibility. And this is demonstrated in his performances and live shows, in which he continually searched for a synergistic fusion of the stage show, based on music and rhythm as elements of fusion of the various artistic languages (just like the theoretical debate on possible expressions of total art has repeatedly hypothesized), scene characteristics in which the man-performer, free from pursuing a literary script, merged into one in the stage language, with lights and music, choreography and costumes to outline a theater of artaudian expression[15].

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[1] See: Joseph Vogel, Man in the Music. La vita creativa di Michael Jackson, Rome, Arcana Edizioni, 2012;

Luca Izzo & Michelangelo Iossa, Michael Jackson. La storia e l’eredità artistica, Rome, Arcana Edizioni, 2019

[2] Gonzague Saint Bris, Au Paradis avec Michael Jackson, Villeneuve d’Ascq, Presses de la cité, 2010

[3] See: Gonzague Saint Bris, op. cit;

Michael Jackson, Moonwalk, Trento, Sperling Paperback, p. 52, 161-162, 2009, [1988].

[4] Michael Jackson, op cit. p. 175.

[5] Ibid., p. 74, 175.

[6] Ibid., p. 17, 32, 52

[7] Ibid., p. 15, 17, 20, 91,  137, 157, 208.

[8] See, Roy Doliner & Benjamin Blech, I segreti della Sistina, Bergamo, Rizzoli, 2008

[9] Michael Jackson, Dancing the Dream, New York, Doubleday, 1992

[10] For Jackson see: Michael Jackson, Dancing the Dream, New York, Doubleday, 1992.

For Buonarroti see: Ettore Barelli (edited by), Michelangelo. Rime, Milan, Rizzoli, 1998, [1975].

[11] Luca Izzo, Charlie Chaplin. Il genio nel cinema, Salerno, Albatrs Edizioni, 2014.

[12] Luca Izzo & Michelangelo Iossa, op. cit., p. 119

[13] Joseph Vogel, op. cit., p. 122

[14] Luca Izzo, “Thriller, The Best-Selling Album in History and the Short-Film that Forever Changed the History of International Entertainment”, International Journal of Current Research, n° 11, 2019, p. 7611-7613.

[15] See: Luca Izzo, Michael Jackson. Analisi del fenomeno artistico, estetico e sociale, Salerno, Albatros Edizioni, 2011