Trying to trace Michael Jackson's influence on the pop stars that followed him is like trying to trace the influence of oxygen and gravity. So vast, far-reaching and was his impact — particularly in the wake of Thriller's colossal and heretofore unmatched commercial success — that there weren't a whole lot of artists who weren't trying to mimic some of the Jackson formula.
In a way, such appropriation is fitting. After all, Jackson himself was a borrower. He wasn't content to make a pop record or a dance record. Instead, he wanted everything, combining rock guitar with R&B rhythms, disco strings and the funk of 40,000 years. The production on "Wanna Be Startin' Something" is still baffling and magnificent, fusing a stuttering R&B bassline with traditional African call-and-response chants. Who was doing that then? And — even more notable — who's thought to do it since?
While Jackson will never have an equal, he's always had a steady string of disciples, ready and willing to apply his innovations to their own particular craft. Here's a rundown of the pop stars who pay homage and contemporaries who did some borrowing from the King's arsenal:
Justin Timberlake: Timberlake followed Jackson's career arc like it was the KLF's The Manual: start out as the cute one in a precious, loveable boy band, gradually develop a personality that eclipses and then surpasses your fellow group members, and finally launch an ambitious and wildly successful solo career. If Timberlake's first record owed a too-obvious debt to Jackson (play "Rock Your Body" and "Rock With You" back-to-back sometime), he quickly grew past simple mimicry, crafting a follow-up that dabbled in multiple genres without owing a clear debt to any.
Usher: The first and most obvious Jackson follower of the '90s, Usher possessed both a distinctive voice and laser-precise dancing ability. But what worked for Usher was his ability — like Jackson's — to move beyond simple pop balladry and develop a pure, singular artistic vision (and dance like a smooth criminal). Like Thriller, Usher's Confessions embraced a plethora of styles, opening with a searing crunk classic and slowly giving way to a series of raw, searching ballads. His voice has grown with age, from a clipped squeak to a smooth, elegant croon. Usher has borrowed Jackson's best elements, beginning with simple, low-maintenance pop songs and gradually evolving into an artist of stature and class.
Ne-Yo: And speaking of stature and class: Ne-Yo is contemporary soul's author-in-residence. In addition to his own string of hits, Ne-Yo has co-written chart-toppers for other pop stars, chief among them: Beyoncé's "Irreplaceable." Ne-Yo projects maturity and panache, but his best moments — like the gentle ballad "So Sick" or the whip-crack dance number "Nobody" — could have been lifted from any of Jackson's early records. The way Ne-Yo clips and dishes his croon across old-school R&B rhythms is vintage Michael, and his prowess with the pen could easily find him penning this generation's "We Are the World."