I’m sure there are many that will attempt to write an obituary for Michael Jackson “the artist” independent of Michael Jackson “the man.” I’m not sure that’s possible.
It’s not that the numerous scandals and public oddities that crowded the headlines for the past 25 years have tarnished Jackson’s musical accomplishments, per se. It’s that his trajectory as an artist is inseparable from his journey as a celebrity. Jackson was built and bred for the spotlight in an unsustainable way from the very beginning, almost ensuring that his story would end in tragedy. That he became the biggest musical artist in the world along the way merely elevates that personal tragedy into the depressing, disheartening spectacle we’ve spent the past quarter-century experiencing.
The highlights of his career are obvious; if they’re not in your record, CD or MP3 collection, you’re not a music fan. Period. But as Jackson went from star to superstar and began to gain more and more control over both his career and his celebrity, he proved completely incapable of managing either. He only succeeded in releasing four records in 28 years after Thriller made him the King of Pop, each progressively (and sometimes shockingly) worse than the last. He started creating news just for shits and giggles – reportedly, the Elephant Man’s bones story was all a hoax on his part – and in the process generated a bizarro cult of personality that not only distracted from his music but proved ruinous when allegations of sexual abuse emerged.
While Jackson was acquitted of those charges, there’s no question that Jackson was obsessed with children, from his monumental collection of spectacular toys and games, to his insistence on performing surrounded by youths, to the bizarre circumstances under which his own three children were born. Perhaps it’s reductionist to view Jackson’s own childhood – one of physical abuse, touring and fame – as the Rosetta Stone to decipher his life and career, but where else do we find any sense to it all? What was Neverland if not a constructed, fantastical lost childhood that Jackson tried to build with disastrous results? How else to explain his increasing fascination with simplistic, almost juvenile ballads on his later records?
It’s an open question as to whether Jackson was ever truly in touch with objective reality, given all this. But at one time, he wasn’t just in touch with the pop pulse of America (and the world, for that matter) – he WAS the pulse. Even if the King of Pop was self-appointed in the mid-1980s, he was a benevolent monarch with the support of the people. Was the Michael Jackson we experienced with Off the Wall and Thriller – a riveting performer writing and recording some of the greatest pop songs of all time – an outlier? A fluke? Will history (not HIStory) eventually downplay Jackson’s own role in his career and give most of the credit to Quincy Jones?
Somehow, I doubt it. If anything, the public has shown a rather incredible willingness to believe in Jackson throughout his darker days, a will at odds with both the oft-disturbing aspects of his personal life and the dwindling success of his musical output. It would be tempting to credit this solely to the undeniable quality of his best work, but countless other bands and artists have been relegated to the dustbin of history in spite of stunning discographies.
No, I think people continued to believe in Michael Jackson for more than the great songs. In some ways, he represented both the beginning and the end of popular music. At the same time he established the model for the modern MTV pop star, he also was one of the last gasps of an era when it was possible for a record to end up in everyone’s collection. When Larry King says today that “we will never see his likes again,” it’s not just hyperbole – it’s the truth. Jackson was the King of Pop in the kingdom’s decline and even though he abdicated the throne years ago, no one has taken the title. Arguably, there’s no kingdom left to claim.
Watch: Michael Jackson – “Billie Jean” Live at Motown 25 (not only the first time Jackson ever moonwalked, but a solo performance that is every bit as stunning today as it must have been at the time)