Michael Jackson: Singer, Songwriter, American Inventor | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
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Michael Jackson: Singer, Songwriter, American Inventor

The King of Pop invented more than just amazing dance moves

Here's the scene: Michael Jackson, dressed in white suit and hat like a gangster guardian angel walks into a bar full of thugs, gamblers, and flappers, the music stops and everyone stares at him; he reaches for a gun - no, it's just a quarter, which he flips all the way across room where it slides perfectly into a jukebox coin slot. The song starts with a synthesized crash: As he came into the window / it was the sound of a crescendo....You've been hit by a Smooth Criminal. Dancing, fighting, dramatic pauses, a weird slow-motion interlude, and more dancing and fighting follow. Then it happens, at about the 7:10 mark above, Michael gives a knowing smile, tilts his hat, and leans. He leans an amazing, impossible lean. It seems so simple but it's just. so. cool. 

When a 7-year old me saw it for the first time on screen, it was surely the coolest thing I had ever seen (which until that point was a teenage werewolf playing air guitar and surfing on top of a van). Smooth Criminal might still be the coolest thing I've ever seen. It's cooler than Miles Davis giving birth to cool in an igloo cool. It's cool, man. There's no other word for it. 

Oh wait, there might be actually - how about "inventive"?

US Patent 5255452 A: "Method and means for creating anti-gravity illusion"

In the "Smooth Criminal' video, the centerpiece of the wonderfully bizarre film Moonwalker (1988), the impossible lean was accomplished with wires, but to recreate the effect during live performances, Jackson worked with two designers to develop a "method and means for creating [an] anti-gravity illusion." This signature move (among many others) was made possible by a patent for a shoe allowing the “wearer to lean forwardly beyond his center of gravity.” Though it looks like a regular loafer when worn with long pants, the shoe is actually strapped around the ankle to secure it to the dancer's foot - but the real secret is in the heel, which conceals a slot that can lock into a small post raised on stage. Dancers click their heels into place at just the right time and–-boom–-you've been hit by a smooth criminal. It's a brief moment, but it's one of the most iconic images of Michael Jackson's career and American pop culture.

 

US Patent 5255452 A: "Method and means for creating anti-gravity illusion"

Michael Jackson's patent, and more importantly, his signature is on display as part of a new exhibition at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. "Making Their Mark: Stories Through Signatures," invites visitors to examine the signatures on historic documents and imagine the moment they were signed, moments that have shaped America's history and defined its culture. No one has a signature that is exactly the same every time its written, but a signature's variability is part of what reveals it to be authentic; each signature is a unique product of the time and place it was written. Other notable signatories on display as part of the exhibition include founding fathers such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, whose documents tell the story of a young nation in rebellion against King George III. But they are in good company with the King of Pop, whose signed patent reveals that his inventiveness extended beyond creating sweet dance moves. 

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