My knowledge of popular culture is generally quite atrocious. Every time popular culture comes up in conversations I realise just how many films I haven’t yet seen, how many songs I haven’t yet heard of and how many famous individuals have never even entered my consciousness. When I heard that the National Portrait Gallery was putting on an exhibition which documented Michael Jackson’s musical career and influence on culture and society around the world I jumped at the chance to learn more about such a highly decorated cultural icon that I had very limited knowledge about beyond some of his biggest hits of the 80s and 90s.
I went with my brother to this exhibition which was great as he was a font of Michael Jackson knowledge and provided a lot of contextual information for much of the artwork on display. As well as finding out that Michael Jackson was the first black musician to enter a significant number of non-black family homes around the world, I also learnt that he was the first black artist to be featured on MTV. I think this can be attributed to the fact that he was a phenomenally talented singer and dancer as well as an incredibly hardworking individual. He acknowledged that “people of colour and women had to work twice as hard to get half as far” and this attitude pushed him to work incredibly hard indeed. This attitude, as well as help from the music mogul Quincy Jones, in turn led to his success and status as a cultural icon who broke many racial barriers and paved the way for several artists of every creed and colour who would follow his lead, replicate his dance moves and mimic his falsetto tones.
I also learnt a few heart-breaking truths about Michael Jackson’s life such as the fact that he grew up in a two-bedroom house with eight other siblings in a small Rust Belt town in Indiana. The exhibition also illustrated how Michael Jackson drew parallels between himself and E.T. He thought of himself as a relative outsider who was simply trying, and sometimes struggling, to find his way in this world– much like the titular character from the iconic 80s film. I also discovered that because he didn’t have a typical childhood, as he spent so much of his early life performing and honing his craft with the Jackson 5 and then later as a solo artist, he tried desperately to cling onto his youth even in later life. This explains a lot about his personality and lifestyle, particularly why he named his home Neverland and built a theme park inside it.
The exhibition itself was incredible and did a fantastic job of showcasing the vast achievements Michael Jackson made throughout his career as well as how he was received globally by fans. I left with a burning desire to listen to the songs from his Off the Wall album which I hadn’t heard before as well as to listen to some of my favourite songs from the Thriller album.
Two pieces by Graham Dolphin. His works featured multiple copies of Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall and Thriller albums with the lyrics to every song ever recorded by Michael Jackson handwritten on them in small white print.
P.Y.T by Appau Junior Boakye-Yiadom
A series of images of Michael Jackson by Andy Warhol
Image from the American Jesus series by David LaChapelle
Equestrian portrait of King Phillip II (Michael Jackson) by Kehinde Wiley