Michael Jackson, 1958-2009

I've been trying to figure out the right things to say regarding the sudden death of Michael Jackson on Thursday. As anybody familiar with my reviews has probably already figured out, I'd much rather talk about unfamiliar musicians that I do like than overly familiar musicians whom I never really cared for. On the other hand, Jackson was a cultural icon and somebody everyone close to my age more or less grew up with, which makes him too important a musical figure for his passing to go unacknowledged.

Jackson grew up in a large family in Gary, Indiana, a bleak-looking industrial city on Lake Michigan. Gary is the kind of place where you need to have dreams to keep yourself going, and the Jackson family dreamed big. When Motown first signed the Jackson 5 in 1968, Michael was just ten. He was the youngest member at the time (younger brother Randy would join up later), but the group revolved around him; his superior singing and dancing abilities were obvious even then. The Jackson 5 had a string of hits, and the recurring pattern of child/teen acts making a big dent on the pop charts every few years or so essentially started with them. Michael was destined for bigger things than the rest of his brothers, though. He made some solo recordings in the 1970's, but it wasn't until he teamed up with producer Quincy Jones that he became the superstar we all know. Their first album together, 1979's Off the Wall, sold over 20 million records. Of course, 1982's Thriller has sold over 50 million worldwide, more than any other album ever recorded. Aside from the music, Thriller clearly benefited from Jackson's grasp of the nascent art form of music videos. Jackson was already a star, but the string of videos he made for the Thriller album, combined with the exposure that the new network MTV provided for these videos, enabled him to conquer the world.

Then things started getting weird. Tabloid journalism feasted on his many plastic surgeries, his unnaturally high adult voice, his skin that lost its color seemingly overnight, his marriages and divorces, his eccentric lifestyle and reclusive behavior, and especially his fraternization with other people's children that would be creepy and disturbing even if all the allegations leveled against him are actually false. The stories are all too well-known to dwell on at length, and I see no point in speculating on what really happened behind the scenes. As for the music, everything Jackson did after Thriller seemed to plunge him deeper and deeper into an abyss of self-absorption and self-parody. Ominously, he looked increasingly frail and unhealthy as he got older.

If you pay any attention at all to the world of entertainment, it's hard to escape stories of many different performers who were stars as children and now have (or had) many issues as adults. No child performer was a bigger star, or grew up to have more issues, than Michael Jackson. He needed people's love and adoration badly, of that there can be no doubt, but he seemed to cower from the attention when it involved any kind of scrutiny. Most poignantly, his behavior frequently suggested that he lacked the love of the person from whom he needed it most: himself.

In some ways Michael Jackson's life mirrors that of Elvis Presley. In the beginning, the youthful energy and motion he coupled with his singing turned him not just into a megastar, but into the most visible symbol of American popular culture in the eyes of the world. And by the end he was already a ghost of his old self, painful to both listen to and look at. He had everything, and yet he had nothing. History has a funny way of repeating itself sometimes.

posted by Scott

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