By Paul Gaszak, English Faculty
What’s your favorite Michael Jackson song?
Think about it for a second.
Okay, what’s your answer?
Today, I tested a hypothesis of mine by texting and asking a number of people this same question. Everyone, without exception, responded within seconds:
“‘PYT.’ No question.”
“I like ‘Man in the Mirror.’”
“Probably ‘Billy Jean.’”
“I like ‘Billie Jean’ and ‘I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.’”
“‘The Way You Make Me Feel.’”
“Oh – ‘Man in the Mirror.’”
For me, my answer is “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.”
Now, why am I asking?
About five years ago, I had an idea to have popular music playing in my classroom as students arrived for our 8:00am class. I thought it would be fun and inject a bit of energy into a group of very tired people (myself included) who had just woken up.
However, I balked.
Generally, people are very judgmental and combative about music. Not just students – all people. I started to envision people would arrive and, rather than enjoy the music, there would just be gripes like “I hate this song?” or “Who listens to this?” or “This singer is terrible!” So, I abandoned the idea.
Instead, I spun it into a class activity. I broke the class into groups and asked them to come up with songs that would appeal to 90% or more of the entire diverse Robert Morris University community, which includes students, staff, faculty, and administrators of all ages, races, and backgrounds. Each group presented their best option to the entire class, and then we voted on which song was the best fit to appeal to that diverse audience.
In the years since, I’ve done this same activity with around 15-20 classes, and the answer in all but one instance has led us to the same artist:
Around 75% of the time, the specific answer is “Billie Jean” with an occasional “Thriller” sprinkled in.
A few years ago, after years of getting Michael Jackson as the answer to this experiment, I tried out my original concept just to see what would happen. I got to my classroom early and setup a playlist of “Blurred Lines” and “Get Lucky” at the height of their popularity. I then left the room so the “teacher” wouldn’t be present. Just before class started, I peeked in. The music was playing and nearly everyone in the room was dead silent and motionless. Some of them even looked like they were reenacting A Clockwork Orange.
It confirmed my original fear, especially when I got into the class and some students started to gripe about those (at the time) extremely popular songs. This means that even the most popular contemporary songs and artists have no chance at appealing to 90% or more of an extremely diverse audience. But Michael Jackson always does.
Which leads me back to my experiment today.
When I talk about my favorite artists and bands, typically the discussion starts with, “Have you ever heard of this band?” or, “Do you like this song by this group?” Through years of this classroom activity, and through many discussions with friends and colleagues, I realized that Michael Jackson is the only artist for whom you can immediately assume that everyone will know, everyone will like, and everyone will have an immediate response to what their favorite MJ song is as if they have thought about it many times before (which they have).
So, I tested the hypothesis. As I asked a bunch of people today, “What’s your favorite Michael Jackson song?” no one said, “Eh, I don’t like him,” or “I don’t really know his music.” Everyone had an immediate response, literally within seconds.
It isn’t strange that people would love “The King of Pop,” but it is amazing that the love is so universal and unquestioned.
However, strangely, almost no one these days identifies Michael Jackson as their favorite artist. That age has passed, and perhaps just the generation of people who grew up during the time the Thriller album was released would be in play to identify MJ as their favorite artist, but the music remains unquestionably popular to everyone.
My next idea was to wonder if there are any other artists, in any other medium, that are on the “Michael Jackson Level” in this 90% appeal scenario. While sharing this whole topic with my colleagues today, we kicked around a few names. I thought perhaps Steven Spielberg; everyone has to love at least one movie from his catalog, be it Jurassic Park or Indiana Jones or Jaws or E.T. A colleague then proposed The Beatles. Both were good options, but unlike Michael Jackson, we were able to immediately identify ways in which those two would not have the 90% appeal.
Thus, the “King of Pop” really is the king of universal appeal.