Learn the late King of Pop’s clever secrets.
Watching footage of Michael Jackson on stage, it’s easy to think he was something more than human. His electric dance moves and magnetic personality made him one of the biggest stars of the 20th century. But he also had help.
Jackson was a consummate performer, true, but a big part of stagecraft is illusion. And the King of Pop deployed several tricks and inventions to dazzle audiences both during performances and on records. Let’s reveal a few of them.
Dancing was one of the ways that Michael Jackson distinguished himself throughout his career. His explosive, dynamic movements made his slight figure magnetic onstage. When he came to stardom, he brought the moonwalk, a move first done in the 1930s, to worldwide fame.
Many of Jackson’s moves seemed too cool for the human body to perform. The anti-gravity lean from the “Smooth Criminal” video actually was.
Patent #US5255452 A covers a “system for allowing a shoe wearer to lean forwardly beyond his center of gravity by virtue of wearing a specially designed pair of shoes which will engage with a hitch member movably projectable through a stage surface.”
In layman’s terms, that means MJ and his backup dancers were wearing special footwear that hooked into small protrusions on the floor. When they were secure, they would lean forward and appear to defy gravity.
The lean illusion has been adopted by a number of stage magicians as well, but it’s not easy. You need a great deal of leg and ankle strength to pull it off, even with your shoes secured to the stage.
Jackson was equally innovative in the studio, with notable assistance from engineer Bruce Swedien. In the pre-digital era, musicians recorded on analog tape, virtually chopping it up into 24 individual “tracks” of instrumentation.
Unfortunately, running that tape over and over to add sounds causes it to gradually decay, muffling and muting tones. Swedien’s Acusonic method avoided that by never re-playing the master rhythm track, instead synchronizing everything to a time code. That kept the drum parts on albums like “Thriller” lively in the mix.
In addition, because Swedien wasn’t limited in the total number of tracks he could use, he recorded many of the instrumental overdubs in stereo, giving them richer presence on the final album. It’s a minor thing, but it helped Jackson’s albums stand out sonically from their contemporaries.
MJ was also wildly experimental in recording his vocal parts, which also featured numerous overdubs. For “Billie Jean,” one of his biggest hits, he sang some of his lines through a five-foot-long cardboard tube.
Not all of Jackson’s inventions came to fruition, which is probably for the best. In 2005, when preparing for a Las Vegas residency that never happened, the singer had proposed the construction of a 50-foot autonomous robot that would wander around in the Nevada desert.
The robot — which, of course, would have been crafted in Michael’s image — was sketched by fashion designer André van Pier, but budgetary constraints led to the project being radically downsized.
The last plan was to have a Vegas casino totally redesigned in the singer’s image, with his mechanical face on the facade blasting lasers into the street.
In a different world, even though the King of Pop has passed on, his lonely 50-foot robot duplicate still walks the Earth, promoting concerts that will never happen. It would have been a fitting epitaph for a man whose relentless innovation will be felt for centuries to come.