As is evidenced, here, here and, incredibly, here, I am a gigantic Michael Jackson fan. His sudden death on Thursday at the age of 50 is incredibly saddening. He was a musical genius with unrivaled charisma, talent and dedication to his craft. Below are a few self-indulgent, perhaps rambling thoughts on his career and legacy.
“And my goal in life is to give to the world what I was lucky to receive: the ecstasy of divine union through my music and my dance.”
Admittedly, I am far too young to have any memories of Michael Jackson at the peak of his fame. Hell, I wasn’t even alive for the release of Thriller and I am only a handful of days older than Bad. By the time I started even seriously listening to music, Michael had all but stopped working. The last truly noteworthy song Jackson released was probably “You Are Not Alone,” and that was 14 years ago.
So I can’t say that I was there for the peak of Michael mania, which is a real shame. Because make no mistake about it; the man was a phenomenon in every sense of the word. For years, no one in the world was more beloved. Just look at this 1993 halftime performance at the Super Bowl. Only Michael could upstage our nation’s biggest sporting event.
But I believe that Michael’s overwhelming success wasn’t due solely to his prodigal talent. Much of it depended on the culture in which he arose. It wasn’t simply that Michael Jackson was such a dominant figure; it’s just as much the case that people at the time were willing to be dominated by him. There was no shame in being utterly swept away in Michael’s music, dancing and style. Today, when we want to use the word "phenomenon" to describe musicians, we have to use it sarcastically and tinged with a sense of superiority. Rolling Stone calls the Jonas Brothers a phenomenon, and while that is probably true, no one over the age of 15 genuinely likes them because we have deemed that to be unacceptable.
It’s interesting that globalization has decimated all other media records from Jackson’s heyday of the 1970s and 80s. The highest grossing movie of that time is no longer the highest grossing movie of all time. Same with the most watched television program. However, the records set by Thriller remain unbroken. True, you could argue that music just hasn’t seen a figure as compelling as Michael Jackson in the past four decades. But you could just as plausibly say that we as a culture haven’t let it happen.
A few hours after Jackson died, I heard his music being played simultaneously on eight different radio stations. One in particular will only be playing Michael’s work for the rest of the weekend. Inevitably, you have to ask yourself whether we will ever see another musician that will provoke a similar response. The answer, sadly, is almost certainly no.
“There were times when I had great times with my brothers, pillow fights and things, but I was, used to always cry from loneliness.”
It’s easy to play armchair psychiatrist with Michael’s troubled personal life. Perhaps his fascination with children was due to the fact that he never had a childhood of his own. As Tony Kornheiser insightfully tweeted Friday, you “don't need Freud to know that when [Jackson] named his home Neverland that he was trying to run away.”
After all, by age five, Michael was already performing regularly with his brothers. By 12, he was the main attraction in a group that produced four number ones in a single year. By 20, his solo career had generated five records topping more than 20 million sales. And by 25, he had released what would become the highest selling album of all time.
The loneliness and exploitation that characterized Michael’s childhood is well documented. And maybe that’s the reason behind his erratic and at times frightening behavior. And maybe it isn’t. The point is that every day, for over half his life, Michael Jackson woke up as one of the five most recognizable people on the planet. As far as the most revolutionary and groundbreaking musical acts of the 20th century, Michael’s only company is Elvis and The Beatles, a band whose work he literally owns the musical rights to. Eventually, I believe, that sort of unyielding popularity begins to take a toll on who you are. It's almost impossible to be both famous and normal.
Take swimmer Mark Spitz, for example. By all accounts, Mark Spitz is an arrogant, conceited jerk. But for 35 years, Spitz could lay claim to having won the most gold medals in one Olympics, and with it the implicit assumption that his performance was the greatest in athletic history. No matter how humble or well-grounded you may have been, such incomparable success and recognition changes you, most likely because it forever changes the people around you.
And this is Mark Spitz. He won 7 gold medals in one Olympics. Michael Jackson sold 750 million albums and has 13 number one solo singles. That’s not like comparing apples to oranges. That’s like comparing apples to giant, diamond-encrusted, gold-plated oranges. In the end, I think that Michael’s numerous controversies and scandals, though by no means forgivable, are understandable and even expected. When you are that famous for that long, you are not a person. You are a personality.
“The greatest education in the world is watching the masters at work.”
Below is a video of Michael Jackson performing "Billie Jean" at the 25th anniversary celebration of Motown Records in 1983. The performance, with its introduction of his now iconic moonwalk, was so electrifying that Fred Astaire called Michael the next day to offer his praise.
“You are incredible,” Astaire said. “You are a hell of a mover.”
Many say that this is the night Jackson became the King of Pop. It is a title that he rightfully earned and has yet to relinquish. No matter what you thought of Michael Jackson, his passing only reminds us of the massive role he played in the shaping of popular culture. Over the past 40 years, we have loved, respected, admired, attacked, reviled, humiliated and consumed Michael Jackson. But we never forgot him.
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