Academic journal article The Journal of Pan African Studies (Online)

Michael Jackson & Television before Thriller

Academic journal article The Journal of Pan African Studies (Online)

Michael Jackson & Television before Thriller

Article excerpt

The Jackson Five had a huge effect on television.

-Margo Jefferson, On Michael Jackson1

The primary form of Jackson's secular spirituality is televisual. In fact, the major moments in Jackson's vocation have been catalyzed by the visual medium, either on television or in music video.

-Michael Eric Dyson, "Michael Jackson's Postmodern Spirituality"2

We've lost a lot because of TV. You should be able to move people without all that advanced technology, without pictures, using only sound.

-Michael Jackson, Moonwalk3

One of the paradoxes of Michael Jackson's career is that he was deeply suspicious of television, the medium that helped him become a global superstar. The sense of loss Jackson expressed in his 1988 autobiography is not the sentiment of an old-timer frustrated with new technologies; rather, it is the voice of a performer who came of age with, and whose music and stardom became inseparable from, television. From his groundbreaking music videos to the tabloid news coverage of his eccentricities and controversies, television played a major role in Jackson's career. Although Michael Jackson's performance on Motown 25 and his "Thriller" video are typically understood as his major television breakthroughs, Jackson performed on network television with the Jackson Five dozens of times from 1969 to 1976. These early performances show how Jackson honed his skills as a television performer, and make it clear that before Jackson released Thriller in 1982 his television image had already been circulated and commoditized in various program, with significant profits for media producers.

This essay examines the first phase of Michael Jackson's television career. First, I look at the Jackson Five's television debut in 1969 at the Miss Black America pageant and their first nationally broadcast performances on Hollywood Palace and The Ed Sullivan Show. Through these performances I examine how, under the guidance of Motown producers, the Jackson Five reshaped their chitlin-circuit performance style for a national audience. This first section also traces the wide range of television appearances the Jackson Five made to promote their records while signed with Motown. Second, I consider Jackson 5ive (1971-73), an animated series featuring Michael and his brothers. This cartoon was important because it was one of the first times that an image of Michael Jackson circulated apart from his physical performance. The show also provided its audience positive images of black youth at a time when few such images were available for young viewers. Finally, I analyze The Jacksons (1976-1977), a variety show featuring celebrity guests, singing, dancing, and comedy sketches. This program, the first televised variety show hosted by a black family, demonstrated Jackson's evolution as a dancer. While Jackson later expressed regret over agreeing to do this show, the program taught him to be selective in his television performances.

Michael Jackson's Television Debut and the Motown Influence

Most Americans learned about the talented brothers from Gary, Indiana when they performed on The Ed Sullivan Show for the first time in December 1969. Before this performance introduced the Jackson Five to a large national audience, they had already performed extensively at local talent shows and on the chitlin-circuit of black clubs and theaters. Motown historian Nelson George notes that starting in 1966 the Jackson 5 piled "into vans on weekends and holidays to perform as far away as New York, Philadelphia, and Phoenix, thus building a reputation in black music circles well before signing with Motown."4 Not only were the Jackson 5 seasoned performers by the time they reached television, but this rigorous touring schedule gave them two invaluable skills for their television performances. First, as in talent shows, they had only a few minutes to show their stuff on television. As Jackson noted in his autobiography,

Winning an amateur night or talent show in a ten-minute, two-song set took as much energy as a ninety-minute concert. …

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