“The first explosion was Elvis. That was about sexual liberation and racial integration, and that blast lasted about ten years.
The second explosion was the Beatles – and everything they issued in. Suddenly pop music was about long hair and experimental sounds, progressive politics and outlaw rhetoric. Rock was about a counter-culture. That blast reverberated for 20 years, right through Springsteen, Prince and U2.
The third explosion was “Thriller,” Michael Jackson’s 1982 album – the best selling record of all time, and an album that invented the pop world we are still living in 25 years later.”
While I will agree that Thriller was one of the major turning points in popular music, I can’t concede that it was bigger or more important than Elvis or the Beatles.
First of all, the effects of the first two are still influencing popular music and culture as we speak. In fact without either one of them, the phenomenon that was Michael Jackson would never have existed. So to say that Elvis’ explosion only lasted ten years or that the Beatles’ only twenty is to greatly under value exactly what they did.
Second, neither Elvis nor the Beatles imagined the success and influence they sparked. They basically came out of nowhere and unwittingly changed the course of music and popular culture forever. MJ’s rise was measured and planned. There’s no denying that the man had more than his share of talent and charisma. But he only really did exactly what he was groomed to do. Thriller was his sixth studio album and had been in the spotlight for ten years before his explosion. So it was less meteor and more slow-burning forest fire in my opinion, not realizing that it was as big as it was until suddenly it was impossible to escape. (Did you try to watch MTV the day the Thriller video was released? It was impossible!)
I know that both the Beatles and Elvis had their share of scandal and tabloid-worthy personal storylines, but no one has ever been more of a freak show by design than Michael Jackson. As far as I’m concerned, the whole thing was part of his master plan; to stay in the spotlight as long as possible regardless of the headline. He made a conscious effort to seem bigger, more mysterious, and enigmatic than he ever actually was. And it worked. Packaged and marketed perfectly for that specific time in history.
But bigger or more influential than Elvis & the Beatles? I don’t think so.