Can you believe it’s been 7 years since Michael Jackson passed away? It feels like it was just last week. His legacy is far from gone, however, and this week, we’ll be taking a look at and celebrating what made MJ the true King of Pop.
If there’s one thing I regret about being born in the ’90s, it’s that I never got to see a Michael Jackson performance in person. But even through all the videos I’ve watched online, it’s easy to tell: his shows were magical. He set the bar high and was second to none in the amount of hard work he poured into his tours and performances, and it paid off big time. It’s heartbreaking to think he didn’t get to perform even one of his This Is It concerts because from what we saw in the behind-the-scenes movie, it would have been absolutely stunning and groundbreaking. Nevertheless, there’s a treasure trove of 40+ years of an incredible career that he fortunately gifted us with, and for that, we will be forever grateful. Here are just a few highlights of his countless live performances.
“Billie Jean” – Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever (1983)
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, chances are you’ve seen this video of “Billie Jean” at Motown’s 25th anniversary special (either way, it’s always worth watching and rewatching). Considered to be Michael’s breakthrough performance for his solo career, it is, in one word, iconic. “Billie Jean” was at the peak of its heyday atop the music charts, and from the moment MJ struck that first pose with the fedora and his jacket and single glove shimmering in the spotlight, people were already dancing and clapping in the audience. But of course, what made this performance so popular was one thing: the debut of his signature dance move, the moonwalk. When he so smoothly glided backwards across that stage, it altered music history forever.
Put it this way: if Michael Jackson hadn’t performed at the 1993 halftime show, we probably wouldn’t have seen that epic showdown between Beyoncé and Bruno Mars earlier this year at Super Bowl 50. Before Michael, the halftime show usually consisted on marching bands, and viewership decreased during the break. After him, the NFL took to clamoring after and signing the biggest stars in music, and the show has become as much of an American tradition as the commercials surrounding the game. The best part is that he only agreed to perform once he found out that the show would be broadcasted to millions around the world in places he would never get to do a concert of his own. And in true MJ fashion, he put on a dazzling, spectacular performance, starting with a medley of “Jam,” “Billie Jean,” and “Black or White,” and ending with a heartfelt message to care for our planet with “We Are the World” and “Heal the World.”
MTV Video Music Awards (1995)
I remember the 1995 VMAs performance being one of the first MJ videos I ever watched as a little kid, and falling in love with it instantly, particularly with the part where he danced to the intro of “Billie Jean” behind a screen while Slash rocked out on his guitar out on front of the stage. Talk about chilling. But there’s a whole myriad of moments to love in this fifteen-minute medley. There’s a powerful mash-up of some of his greatest hits, including “Scream” (which won 3 awards that night), to kick things off. Then, after “Billie Jean,” there’s an epic group dance to “Dangerous” for those of us who “like to take that crazy walk on the wild side,” and for those who like to “take each day as it comes,” he wraps things up with an equally-stunning rendition of “You Are Not Alone.” It’s safe to say that after Motown, this is arguably his greatest single performance of all time.
“Earth Song” – MJ & Friends (1999)
To be honest, I shouldn’t be writing about this performance, and if everything had gone right in it, I wouldn’t be. But during “Earth Song” – which was being performed as part of a charity benefit concert tour – a very serious accident occurred (which you can see at the 6:00 mark in the video above). The bridge, which Michael walks onto and is supposed to ride up to look out over the audience, malfunctions during its ascent and instead careens back down into the pit of the stage. If you know what’s going on, it’s eerily chilling to watch. But the amazing thing is, Michael keeps going, and doesn’t even miss a beat during the actual fall or crash. He just keeps singing and finishes the song, and what’s more, he even does the last song of the show, “You Are Not Alone,” after (albeit without the usual costume change). Only once that’s completed does he go backstage, collapse, and get rushed to the hospital. If that’s not the definition of a true professional, I don’t know what is.