It has been twenty five years since the release of the epic Michael Jackson album Thriller. Hot off of the success of his first album Off The Wall, produced with the help of Quincy Jones, Thriller didn’t just break but demolished all kinds of record sales records. No album or CD has been able to even come close to the phenomenon that Thriller was. And the way CD sales are dwindling down no album ever will.
Michael Jackson’s Thriller was the first song by a black artist to be played on the video music channel MTV. Prior to this, Michael Jackson was told that he need not apply. MTV was going in a different direction and Michael Jackson wasn’t exactly what the executives in charge of MTV had in mind for their image. Prior to the release of Thriller, MTV had never featured a black music artist. The year was 1983. It’s not like black people weren’t making decent music at the time. At this time, Stevie Wonder had just released one of his greatest pieces of work, Hotter Than July. Roger Trottman, The Time, and Price were considered the fresh sound in music. The OJays, the Whispers, and the soulful sound of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes were old school. Black musical artist were popping out of the woodwork. But MTV had an image where black people need not apply. The J Giles Band can sing about Angel’s Being a Centerfold and David Lee Roth can sing about the fact that He Ain’t Got Nobody, but black people were about as welcome as a church lady in a social club in the big easy. And people were okay with this.
However, Michael Jackson wasn’t okay with it. He wasn’t going to let the rather narrow minded bigots stand in the way of him becoming the first black person to break these pointless racial ceilings. Mr. Jackson worked to make Thriller, the song, the video, and the album, a phenomenon that MTV could not ignore. He succeeded with phenomena to spare. Billy Jean was the first single off that album. The song was such genius that so many women were so convinced that they were the fictitious Billy Jean that Mr. Jackson had to hire a law firm just to deny their allegations in various courtrooms. This was followed by Human Nature, Pretty Young Thing, The Way You Make Me Feel, and the phenomenal Thriller. The video created a new standard for the execution of videos. Michael Jackson had succeeded.
Since then MTV has changed its tune and now features black artist regularly. Twenty five years later this music channel could easily be considered a front and center player in the consistent portrayal of the gangsta rap culture that has become so heavily intertwined into the black community. Programs like Pimp My Ride are regular features. The last time I actually bothered to watch an MTV program was My Super Sweet 16 featuring Darnell Robinson, the young teenage son of Sugar Hill Studios executive Leland Robinson. The conspicuous consumption of money and luxury and lavishness was the only thing the show had to offer viewers. And the number of people who promote a gangsta rap star lifestyle with gold chains and diamonds, fine automobiles, houses big enough to be Hilton hotels, while wearing oversized T shirts and sagging jeans grows nearly every time MTV Cribs makes a new show.
It’s a sucker bet that the black people who are featured as part of these ostentatious display of pseudo urban style materialism usually featured in some wealthy suburb are thankful to Michael Jackson for his part in breaking the MTV color barrier. But how did the black community benefit from the elimination of this color barrier? MTV has evolved over the years from excluding black people entirely to exploiting only a narrow image of black urban music to perpetuate black, stereotypical images. MTV has evolved from a white controlled corporate entity saying nothing good is worth showing out of the black community into a white controlled corporate entity saying nothing good is all that’s worth seeing out of the black community. Either way MTV does its fair share of damage to the image of the black urban community.
Too many of our black children and impressionable young black adults want to emulate the lifestyles of black urban success being promoted to them. Too many people don’t realize that all too often the images and characters they see being paraded on television on mediums like MTV are just caricatures and parodies of black people. Too often young people want to become the images they see. And then, in the biggest irony of all, we will turn around and blame these impressionable people for wanting to become the images that they see on television.
No one is trying to say that Michael Jackson or some other black person should not have broken through the barriers that kept black people from appearing on MTV. But all too often when the black community opens itself up to opportunities of integration with components of American culture that are obviously intended to exclude black people, we may not be too happy with the results. Mr. Jackson and Quincy Jones and others could have banded together to launch their own music channel. But instead of thinking grand and independent our black celebrities think more along the lines of integration and assimilation. But then again, if BET is any indication, the assimilation would come regardless. If money is involved, it looks like the black community is destined to lose.