Jackson’s life was full of brilliance and the bizarre
By Bill Goodykoontz
Gannett Chief Film Critic
Michael Jackson spent the last years of his life as a punch line, with many of the digs brought on by his increasingly bizarre appearance and behavior.
Which is a shame. The man who dubbed himself the King of Pop actually once lived up to the description. He was a genre-blurring musical genius, one of the most popular global celebrities of all times — and man, he could sing.
That sometimes gets lost when talking about Jackson, 50, who died today, reportedly of cardiac arrest. In a bizarre coincidence, ’70s sex symbol and fellow pop-culture icon Farrah Fawcett also died today, of cancer, making for one of the most momentous days in pop-culture history.
Jackson has become the poster child for having everything, getting it too fast and not knowing how to deal with it. He was famous as a kid, but as an adult he was beyond even that. His father drove the children hard to reach fame, perhaps too hard. But how do you live your life when you haven’t heard the word “no” since before you could drive?
With difficulty, evidently.
Jackson first caught our attention as a member of the Jackson 5. While the group was dripping with talent, it soon became clear Michael was something special — his voice, his dance moves, his charisma. A solo career was inevitable, and no one doubted it would be a success.
It was — “Off the Wall,” his first solo album, was a huge hit when it came out in 1979.
No one could have predicted what would come next.
“Thriller,” which Jackson released in 1982, wasn’t just the best-selling record in history at the time. It was a cultural phenomenon, to use a word that’s tossed around so much it’s lost its value. It fits here, though.
It wasn’t just the millions of records sold. It was that it was seemingly everywhere, all the time — including on MTV, which played few black artists at the time. Jackson’s “Beat It,” with a guitar solo by Eddie Van Halen, helped break that barrier. His video for “Thriller,” meanwhile, helped change music video from a sales tool to an art form.
He was ubiquitous, maybe the biggest global star ever. There he was at the White House. Wait, he’s collecting seven Grammys. Is there a magazine on the stands that doesn’t have his picture on the cover?
This was multiplatform coverage before the term existed. People wanted to know everything about the guy.
Which is where things started to go south. What was the deal with the single glitter glove? Has he had a nose job? Why is he always hanging around with that chimp?
In retrospect, such concerns seem almost quaint. Jackson would change his appearance to the point that he was almost unrecognizable as the boy who belted out “Ben.” In 2003, he was charged with several counts of child sexual abuse; he would be acquitted on all charges, but the damage was done.
By now, Jackson was thought of as weird at best. Financial troubles followed. Jackson was in the midst of preparing for a series of fortune-restoring concerts in England this summer when he died.
What a shame that it came to this. Jackson clearly couldn’t handle the level of fame he achieved, but who could?
At least there’s this: When people talk about Jackson’s life and death the next few days, they’ll of course mention the bizarre appearance, the weird behavior, the charges. But that’ll fade. His music won’t. Cue up YouTube and find his performance, introducing moon walking to the American public at Motown’s 25th anniversary show. Or just listen to “I Want You Back” and try not to tap your toes. You can’t.
His life was a mess. So, often, was the voracious media coverage of it. But the songs are magic, and always will be.