Abstract: In this month’s MJ Studies Today column, Kerry Hennigan looks at the global extent of Michael Jackson’s achievements on various national music charts over the length of his career and his musical afterlife, and in particular the extent of his popularity outside of his country of birth.
Column by Kerry Hennigan, editor of the monthly newsletter, A Candle for Michael, administrator of the widely-subscribed Facebook group “Michael Jackson’s Short Film ‘Ghosts’” and MJ blogger. Student of Ancient History, Archaeology and Anthropology.
Hennigan, Kerry. “MJ Studies Today LXI: Charting hits in seven decades: Michael Jackson’s longevity as a pop icon at home and abroad. (14-01-2021).” The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 7, No. 3 (2021). https://michaeljacksonstudies.org/mj-studies-today-lxi/
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Charting hits in seven decades: Michael Jackson’s longevity as a pop icon at home and abroad.
By Kerry Hennigan
In an interview published March 2002, Michael Jackson humbly acknowledged the rarity of his achievements in scoring hit songs on the music charts. “I had #1 records in 1969 and ’70, and still entered the charts in 2001 at #1. I don’t think any other artist has that range. It’s a great honour. I’m happy, I don’t know what else to say. I’m glad people accept what I do.” 
When Forbes published an article on December 31, 2020 announcing that Jackson had now charted hits (not just number ones) in the Billboard Hot 100 in seven different decades, it was the latest in a long list of milestones for the late King of Pop (1958-2009). The most recent appearance by Jackson came courtesy of a reissue of a recording made with his brothers fifty years earlier. “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” by the Jackson 5 features young Michael on lead vocals for this nostalgic seasonal offering which appeared on the Hot 100 at #46, fifty-two years after the group charted with their first smash hit “I Want You Back” in December 1969. 
The Jackson 5, and subsequently The Jacksons (following the group’s departure from Motown for the Epic label), and Michael Jackson as a solo artist, continued to chart throughout the 70s and 80s and, in Michael’s case, the 1990s. Music journalist Hugh McIntyre explains that, while things slowed down for Jackson in the 2000s, “he still managed to send several cuts to the chart.” Since his death in 2009 at the age of 50, Michael Jackson has charted with tracks from two posthumous albums and by having his vocals partnered with those of other artists, such as Justin Timberlake and Drake. 
The Hot 100 is the music industry standard chart for the US market. However, it does not necessarily reflect the charts in other markets, i.e. the UK, Europe, and the Asia Pacific region (including Australia and New Zealand). While it seems logical that Jackson would chart better in his country of origin, in the latter decades of his career he enjoyed greater popularity overseas. He had become a citizen of the world, having established important connections through recording, touring, and his humanitarian interests in countries as diverse as Romania and South Africa. The United Kingdom’s Official Charts data, for instance, shows Jackson’s longevity in that market, including number ones additional to those he scored in the US. 
While scoring a Hot 100 position in this age of music streaming and digital downloads remains a mark of success, in Jackson’s most prolific solo decades of the 80s and 90s the chart related solely to songs released as singles. Prior to December 1998, it wasn’t enough to get airplay, people had to buy the records. In some notable instances, album tracks by Michael Jackson that were released as singles overseas were not released as such in his home country. Irrespective of the industry politics that may have been involved, it did mean that songs like “Leave Me Alone” (from the “Bad” album, 1987) and “Earth Song” (from HIStory, Past, Present and Future, Book 1, 1995) which charted in other countries – including #2 and #1 respectively in the UK – didn’t get an opportunity to do so in Jackson’s homeland. 
The universality of Jackson’s appeal, and the widespread nature of his music and concert ticket sales is worth bearing in mind when comparisons are made with other artists, in particular those who seldom, if ever, ventured far from their home soil. Never one to rest on his laurels, Jackson was forever striving to exceed previous successes. Whether it was in music sales or concert audiences, or the viewer numbers for a televised performance, he continually strove to get his message out to a broader demographic.
As can be seen from amateur videos uploaded to social media, there are young people today, some of them toddlers, who love dancing to “Billie Jean” and “Smooth Criminal”. To paraphrase choreographers and Jackson collaborators Stacey Walker and Travis Payne, to his youngest fans, including those born since his passing, Jackson is like a superhero. They love the way he looks, the way he dresses and the way he dances. They love to emulate him. 
Academic Sylvia J. Martin’s comments in an article published in 2012 would seem to anticipate Walker’s and Payne’s observations. “Like Superman, Michael Jackson is an American icon who went global. His ability to fuse together West African, African American, and Anglo–European musical influences as well as choreography styles from the American inner city, Fred Astaire, and French mime Marcel Marceau lent Jackson’s craft a broadly inclusive appeal.” 
Untainted by the cynicism of older generations whose impressions of the King of Pop have suffered from the persistent onslaught of tabloid gossip and lurid accusations of sexual impropriety, in the 2020s the youngest Jackson fans are less inclined to be fooled by the media’s click bait tactics and the financial motivations of his accusers. Instead, they see an artist and performer who strove to entertain to the highest possible standard, and succeeded, across age groups, cultural, political, and geographical boundaries. Beyond the music, dance, short films, and stage persona, they see an adult who could relate to them as children and was able to talk with them rather than at them. They instinctively trust that he was as he presented himself to be.
Succeeding generations of young Michael Jackson fans will doubtless continue to produce the rare few who will score fame themselves as a result of the inspiration of their icon. When Vibe asked about some of those already making their mark in the new millennium, Jackson said, “When you grow up listening to somebody you admire, you tend to become them. You want to look like them, to dress like them. When I was little, I was James Brown, I was Sammy Davis Jr., so I understand. It’s a compliment.” 
Michael Jackson’s latest milestone of scoring Hot 100 US hits in seven different decades is just the latest in a long list of milestones for an artist whose career is full of them and whose legacy has proven not to be constrained by his own mortality.
 Vibe Magazine Interview, March 2002. Reproduced in Michael Jackson. The King of Pop. The Big Picture. The Music! The Man! The Legend! The Interviews! An Anthology. Jel D. Lewis (Jones). Amber Books2 2005: p.279. amazon.com/Michael-Jackson-King-Pop-Interviews/dp/B01K94KL7I/
 McIntyre, Hugh. “Michael Jackson has now charted hits on the Hot 100 in seven different decades.” Forbes, 31 December 2020. https://www.forbes.com/sites/hughmcintyre/2021/12/31/michael-jackson-has-now-charted-hits-on-the-hot-100-in-seven-different-decades/
 Billboard. “The Jacksons. Chart History.” Accessed 2 January 2021. https://www.billboard.com/music/the-jacksons/chart-history/HSI
 Official Charts (UK). “Michael Jackson.” Accessed 2 January 2021. https://www.officialcharts.com/artist/16519/michael-jackson/
 MJJ Justice Project’s MJ Global Family Zoom Chat – Aug 25, 2020 w Travis Payne, John Muto, Pez Jax. Uploaded to YouTube August 26, 2020. https://youtu.be/BgJWnu590ss
 Martin, S.J. “The Roots and Routes of Michael Jackson’s Global Identity.” Soc 49, 284–290 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12115-012-9550-z
 Vibe in Lewis p. 280.
“across the decades…” image created by Kerry Hennigan from a professional photograph of Michael Jackson. No copyright infringement is intended in this not for profit educational exercise.