Here are some key facts to keep in mind about Jackson’s Motown 25 performance:


As someone who watched Motown 25 when it originally aired, I can attest that the “Billie Jean” performance—and the two combined seconds of moonwalking—was a true “Did I just see what I thought I saw?” monocultural moment. The kids at school were talking about it the next day. My dad—who favored bluegrass and jazz fusion over pop and R&B—gushed over it. For all of NBC’s fears that Motown 25 wouldn’t connect with a wide enough (or white enough) audience, it became something that nearly everybody was talking about that summer.

The aftereffects of Motown 25 followed very different paths, though. NBC, apparently now convinced that “a black show” could cross over, greenlit The Cosby Show for the fall of 1984. Older Motown acts like The Temptations and The Four Tops started touring again on the nostalgia circuit, while the label released a slew of budget-priced “25th Anniversary” compilations on cassette and the new medium of compact disc, raking in enough money to cover the production costs of Motown 25 several times over. On September 28, 1983, the movie The Big Chill opened, using a Motown-heavy soundtrack to counteract the melancholy in its story of disillusioned ex-hippies. In 1986, the California Raisin Advisory Board and animator Will Vinton put the Motown classic “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” in a wildly popular commercial. In 1988, the TV series Murphy Brown and China Beach both debuted, leaning heavily on Motown songs as soulful signifiers. After Motown 25 won an Emmy and a Peabody, De Passe followed it up with a 1985 NBC special called Motown Returns To The Apollo, and then 1986’s The Motown Revue miniseries, also for NBC. The 1980s itself became something of a living museum of Motown.


Meanwhile, over time, the Michael Jackson moonwalk moment became more divorced from its original context—just as Jackson himself seemed much bigger and more relevant than anyone he shared the stage with in Pasadena that night in March 1983. There was a different energy to Jackson’s performance than to anything else in Motown 25. Even the great Gaye and Wonder received only spirited applause, mostly from the older fans and fat-cats in the crowd. With Jackson, though, it was like a switch had turned on, both within him and within the younger members of the audience, who’d grown up with Jackson. In the years that followed, Jackson would continue to thrill the youth, and would break down racial barriers on the pop charts and on MTV that resembled what other Motown artists had faced in the 1960s. He’d also lose some of the older viewers who loved him on Motown 25, but started to see him more as a weirdo than as the reincarnation of Fred Astaire. (My dad dropped Jackson’s name somewhat contemptuously in the only dirty joke I can ever recall him telling me: “Why does Michael Jackson wear one glove? So he won’t beat it.”)

People sometimes forget that after Jackson departs in Motown 25, there’s still about an hour of show left—much like people forget that when the United States Olympic hockey team beat the Soviet Union, they had to play one more game to claim the gold medal. And there’s still one more magical moment remaining in Motown 25, when Diana Ross closes the show with a very brief Supremes reunion (lasting less than a minute), then invites all the performers back to salute Motown founder Berry Gordy. On the DVD set, De Passe chokes up remembering the Motown elite embracing her boss, who’d been through some tough times, and had strained relationships with nearly everyone on that stage. It’s a tear-jerking finish, undeniably.


Motown 25 does a good job of contextualizing the label’s cultural impact via archival clips from TV shows like The Ed Sullivan Show and To Tell The Truth; and via a pointed Dick Clark reminiscence about the how the white and black music worlds interacted, pre-Motown. But Motown’s behind-the-scenes squabbles go undocumented, so only longtime fans would’ve gotten the significance of Ross sharing a song with the group she abandoned, or Robinson reuniting with The Miracles. Reportedly, all of the estranged old-timers were happy to see each other again, and stuck around to watch each other’s rehearsals—somewhat in the spirit of competition, just like the old days.

When they all surround Gordy at the end of Motown 25, this generation of men and women who changed popular culture and race relations, there’s a mix of genuine gratitude and showbiz schmaltz in play. It’s a necessary moment—a catharsis effected by the demands of television. But it’s also a kind of goodbye. Goodbye to Gaye, with only a year to live. Goodbye to Pryor, whose heyday was already behind him. Goodbye to the ongoing viability of Robinson and Ross, he in his early 40s and she in her late 30s, and both about to record their last big hits over the next few years. These people are legends, all of them. And yet it’s hard not to look past them on the stage, keeping an eye out for a man in a glittery coat, always asking, “So what’s Michael doing?”