Michael Jackson altered American entertainment with his appearance on the 1983 Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever TV special. Coming at a time when Jackson was chafing to establish himself once and for all as a solo artist separate from the brother-act the Jackson 5, he made the boldest move of his career in front of a live studio audience.
Singing his hit “Billie Jean,” he flashed the moves that became known as the Moonwalk. It’s difficult to remember now, after decades of pop and hip-hop acts having copied Jackson’s choreography, how astounding a spectacle this was. The man was … moving backward while walking forward. He was updating Gene Kelly dance-steps to a rhythm-and-blues song and adding his own slinky-robotic twist to them. After this, pop-music dance would never be the same:
Jackson made a series of music videos that featured endlessly creative variations on the Motown 25 choreography. It didn’t matter whether he worked in long-form (with director John Landis on the “Thriller” monster-mash video) or short (the dazzling dance-work on songs that weren’t even top-tier Jackson songs, such as “The Way You Make Me Feel” and “Smooth Criminal”).
Jackson’s videos had an importance beyond their own existence: They helped break down the barrier that kept R&B videos from being shown on MTV, which originally had a rock-only orientation.
When it came to TV, Jackson in later life did not benefit from the medium. His TV interviews after he became a reclusive, more eccentric man, such as the 2003 ABC special Living With Michael Jackson, did him no favors in reestablishing him as a mass-audience favorite.
But those early and mid-career TV appearances capture what we should remember most about Jackson: that he was an artist who was both very much in the tradition of great pop, rock, and soul legends, and a revolutionary figure who broke new ground.