Pop & Hiss

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Michael Jackson's dance-centric legacy in today's pop music

June 25, 2009 |  6:04 pm

Of all the things that Michael Jackson left the pop music world with -- more perfect singles than anyone not publishing as "Lennon/McCartney," dizzying record sales in every corner of Earth and a life narrative worthy of Shakespeare's finest tragedies -- one of the most important contributions might have been the imperative to dance. All male pop stars after him have to reckon with it. If you're a rocker, you can mournfully emote over a guitar, and rappers have made an ethic out of being too stone-cold to move onstage.

But if you're a man singing pop music today, there's a long, moonwalk-shaped shadow you have to live up to.  Artists such as Justin Timberlake, Usher, Chris Brown and Ne-Yo ascended the pop charts because of their excellent songs. But they became superstars because they dropped your jaw when you watched them. No one has yet to recapture the impossible suaveness and otherworldly nimbleness of Jackson as a dancer -- the Moonwalk completely rewrote the book on male sexuality in music, a move that evoked both deep-space androids and the rakish seducers of the old myths.  But the rules he set for male singers still apply: Your voice can have all the range and grace in the world, but if you're holding up the wall, you'll still be mortal. Here are a few artists today who are trying to come close to Jackson's footwork.  

Justin Timberlake

He had plenty of choreography practice as a member of 'N Sync, but as a solo artist Timberlake came into his own when he embraced the idea that dancing wasn't just what you did in lieu of playing instruments -- it was a whole other means of expression onstage. He's not as flashy as Jackson, but his moves have a precision and iciness that feel wholly true to his two excellent, alien-sounding solo albums.


Early hip-hop was rooted in B-boy culture, where breakdancing was a kind of competition, a means of proving one's prowess physically and stylistically. Usher's no rapper, but his moves have a similar brashness and "beat that" quality to them. He knows he's good, and knows you love him for it. Watching him dance with Jackson, however, is like watching a high school star shoot free throws with LeBron James.

Chris Brown 

He's had significantly bigger problems than perfecting his footwork lately, but let's remember why Breezy became such a star in the first place. A thousand-watt grin always helps, but it's his limber moves that won over teenage girls everywhere. His kinetic floor routines often overshadowed his singles in concert, but the effect was still electric and reasserted how a singer's physicality is a crucial part of his stardom.


He's possibly the best songwriter of the lot here, but Ne-Yo's dancing is the secret weapon. It's minimalist and inventive and sleek as a jungle cat, and complemented by his excellent sartorial judgments. Even on a floor full of professionals, he never stops reminding audiences why backup dancers get that particular job for a reason.

-- August Brown