The 20th century was full of upheaval, discovery, achievement and war, but it was also a time of great cultural life producing enormous talents who remain popular icons today.
In the area of music, the 20th century was gifted with quite a few extraordinary men and women who galvanized the public mind and inspired new ways to think of ourselves as individuals.
John Lennon, Miles Davis and Michael Jackson are three particularly outstanding examples of musicians who came to embody the spirit of their time. Through music they became famous and through fame they became icons, images, avatars of the popular spirit and the trail-blazers for the identity of millions.
These three are joined in the ranks of musical icons of the 20th century by Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and others. These figures grew to be more than musicians and more than entertainers. They became icons. They became history.
Famously, John Lennon once remarked that his band was bigger than Jesus. In a way, he was not even exaggerating. The Beatles’ influence on popular music was vast, global, and lasting.
As the most outspoken and political member of the group, John Lennon stood out as an exemplar of the social conscience of his age – a spiritually minded, socially engaged individual who did not hesitate to share his opinions, his solutions and his hopes with the public.
The sincerity of his music coupled with the uncompromising individuality of his bearing made John Lennon more than a celebrity. He was a mogul. He was a monument.
He will be remembered for a long, long time.
In his lifetime, Miles Davis was a famous as any other musician on the planet. A maverick in his field who dressed with flair, who rarely spoke and sometimes even turned his back to the audience, Miles Davis possessed an accidental genius for preserving a fascinating aura of mystery and glamour.
Miles Davis was a jazz musician who managed to express the “cool”, the “hip” and the sophistication of the musical movement as it had only been imagined before him.
Even today, years after the peak of his fame, Miles Davis represents the distilled essence of the complex, free-form music that he played.
The man remains an icon of cool. He played acoustic jazz and brought it into new arenas. Then he took jazz electric and played for huge audiences. He re-imagined pop ballads as he re-imagined himself in the 1980’s, clad in bright leather, a perfect counter-part to the next suave figure in the line-up of 20th century musical icons – Michael Jackson.
Michael Jackson was more famous than anyone else has ever been. This is not meant as an exaggeration. Let me say it again. Michael Jackson was more famous, at the height of his popularity, than any living human has ever been in the history of mankind.
Think about it. And you will see that this is true.
Jackson rose to super-stardom in a media age that took branding and advertising to new levels. The late 1980’s and early 1990’s advertising culture was far more focused than the advertising culture of today. There was Coke. There was Pepsi. There was Nike.
A few companies decided that they could and would create a world market for their products. This movement toward extreme branding was parallel to Michael Jackson’s ascendancy.
Jackson was the uber-spokesman, the kind of pitch-man that is unthinkable today. In 1990, you would have been hard-pressed to find a 12 year old in Germany or Japan, Canada or Egypt who did not know about Michael Jackson.
Again, this is not meant as an exaggeration but as a statement of fact.
Can we say this about any American figure today? Is there anyone as recognizable around the world as Michael Jackson once was who is living today? Even Barack Obama and George Bush fail in comparison to Jackson’s fame and name-recognition.
He was called the King of Pop. He danced. He sang. He made movies. He made incredible music videos.
Michael Jackson cried on Oprah for an hour in primetime and everyone watched.
Too distinct to be copied, Michael Jackson was instead venerated and loved as a far-off star-child, a talent and an entertainer.
To call him iconic is to under-emphasize his extreme popularity.
He is the most famous person of all time.