Michael Jackson rocketed to global stardom in the early 1980s, but his legacy as the King of Pop is based on more than the height of his career. Famous since the age of 11, he was a superstar by his mid 20s and continued to be a beloved, if flawed, phenomenon through his death on June 25, 2009. As one of the 20th century’s most important and enduringly popular entertainers, he had dozens of newsworthy, career-shaping moments: Here’s a look at 10 of his most iconic moments.
The album Thriller reinvented all standards of commercial pop success. Released on November 30, 1982, it debuted at No. 1, containing seven top 10 hits on Billboard Hot 100, including the rock-driven cautionary tale “Beat It” and the plaintive “Billie Jean,” as well as the spooky but danceable title track. The album made Jackson the first artist to win eight Grammy Awards in one night. Thriller stayed at the top of the charts for 37 weeks, which was a first, and though its position waned, it shot back to No. 1 when its ghoulish video was released a year later. The video’s unison zombie dance still inspires mass groups to try the choreography, and the album continues to be the world’s best-selling album with estimated sales of at least 66 million, according to the Guinness World Records, though some estimates set the number much higher.
2. The Moonwalk and His Glove
On May 16, 1983, Jackson stunned the world with the moonwalk, the backward gliding step he adapted from street dance. He debuted the move while performing the song “Billie Jean” to cap off NBC’s broadcast of Motown 25, an anniversary tribute to the label. Though the moonwalk had been seen on the streets, Jackson polished the move and raised it to a sharper level, adding on his spin and toe-stand as flourish. The oonwalk became a signature and a generation-defining dance move. In the same performance, Jackson debuted his one rhinestone-encrusted white glove, a costume choice that would define his look for years.
3. When His Hair Caught Fire
In a shocking accident, Jackson’s hair caught on fire during the filming of a Pepsi commercial on January 27, 1984. The singer was rushed to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles with second and third-degree burns. The moment made headlines around the world — and probably changed his life: To help him sleep, he was given painkillers and sedatives, which are believed to have led him to regular usage and to his tragic overdose.
4. The Videos He Danced In
Before videos like “Beat It” and “Thriller,” singers rarely led fully choreographed dances. But Jackson’s exceptional ability to pair fresh beats with precision movement added captivating depth to his videos. In “Beat It,” his thigh-slapping kicks and finger snaps led a formation of rival gang members. In “Billie Jean,” he slinks through city streets with graceful footwork and spins. Zombies obey him in “Thriller,” dancing behind him with spookily stylized arms. “Smooth Criminal,” though, best captures his combination of Fred Astaire-quality smoothness and sharp, precision popping — and that expertly crafted 45-degree lean forward, aided by patented shoes with pegs that locked the dancers in position.
5. The Videos He Didn't Dance In
When not dancing in his videos, Jackson used the burgeoning art form to make political and cultural statements. The video for “Man in the Mirror,” from his 1987 album “Bad,” features a sometimes oddly juxtaposed montage of world-historic events, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and children in poverty. Later, the video for his 1991 song “Black or White” used new technology to create morph the faces of a series of people to show that all races and ethnicities have similarities. The visual effect may have become overused later, but at the time, it was groundbreaking.
6. Leading the Jackson 5
Because adult Jackson ruled the 80s so dominantly, it’s easy to forget that the adorably pre-teen Jackson was a Motown sensation in the 70s. A child prodigy with cheerful charisma and natural dance talent, he led his band of brothers Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, and Marlon. With four singles hitting the top of the Billboard charts, the Jackson 5 were among the first black groups to appeal to a racially diverse audience. With hits like “ABC” and “I Want You Back,” Jackson established his path to global stardom.
7. One-of-a-Kind Fashion
The fedora. The white sparkly socks with black shoes. The giant sunglasses. The glove. The statement jackets. Whatever Jackson wore, he caused a sensation. But in some ways, his choices were practical: His large jackets added shape to his rail-thin frame, while his slim black pants helped show off the perfect poses he would hit in dance.
8. Super Bowl XXVII Halftime Show
He took the world stage on January 31, 1993. And he stood there — for what seemed like an outrageously long time for live television. He was allowing us to take in the King of Pop, who, by 1993, had faded from glory. But then he earned that title all over again with a fast-paced, TV-history changing show. Until 1993, halftime entertainment was corny, mostly lead by marching bands. With Jackson’s performance, the NFL had a new standard: Juggernauts only.
9. "We are the World"
In 1985, Jackson used his international mega-stardom for good when he and Lionel Richie co-wrote the song “We are the World” to support African-famine relief. With producer Quincy Jones, they recorded the song with about three dozen of the hottest, most famous vocalists at the time, including headliners Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Billy Joel, Tina Turner, and Ray Charles. The charity recording, released in 1985 as a single, raised more than $60 million under the auspices of USA for Africa, which continues to operate today. Jackson's solos on the album, and his gold-brocade black jacket in the video, still stand out as the highlight of the ultimate supergroup.
10. The Wiz
In 1978, the musical The Wiz was pivotal for Jackson's career. It showed his versatility and kept alive his post-Motown status as a national entertainer, playing the Scarecrow opposite Ross as Dorothy. More importantly, it introduced him to Jones, who produced The Wiz and was already a major record producer, notably of Frank Sinatra. Prior to meeting Jones, Jackson’s career was floundering in his post-Jackson 5, late teen years. But with Jones, Jackson found a partner to take him to the next level. Their albums started with Off The Wall, then Thriller and Bad — and entertainment history was never the same.