Which Michael Jackson will be remembered? The unsurpassed entertainer, the gifted and driven song-and-dance man who wielded rhythm, melody, texture and image to create and promote the best-selling album of all time, Thriller? Or the bizarre figure he became after he failed in his stated ambition to outsell Thriller, and after the gleaming fantasy gave way to tabloid revelations, bitter rejoinders and the long public silence he was scheduled to break next month?
Stage life: Michael Jackson poses on stage during the Jacksons’ Victory Tour in ’84. AP
In the end, the superstar and the recluse were not so far apart.
Jackson built his stardom on paradox. As a child star, he was precocious; as an adult, he was childlike. His only competition was himself. Within the razzle-dazzle of his songs, he sang about fears and uncertainties in that high, vulnerable voice: Flinching from monsters in Thriller, wishing he could just Beat It when trouble began.
He was a racial paradox, too: An African-American whose audience was never segregated, but whose features grew more Caucasian and whose skin grew lighter through his career, to discomfiting effect. His own face had become a mask.
All of Jackson’s show business skills—the ones he learnt under his father’s sometimes brutal instruction and then within the Motown Records’ hit-making assembly line—were at once a way to please the broadest possible audience and to shield himself from them, safe within his own spectacle.
Despite all his time onstage and on the air, Jackson stayed remote: styled, rehearsed and choreographed. He had one of history’s largest audiences, and it never really knew him.
There was no denying his talent. His voice leapt out of the radio in Jackson 5 songs such as I Want You Back, even for those who didn’t see how he danced on television. He internalized Motown’s philosophy of making music for a broad audience—not just a black or white audience, as pop grew increasingly segmented in the 1970s—and when he took over his own career, with Off The Wall in 1979, he applied that philosophy to the newest sounds he could find, in and out of discos.
Cross-cultural appeal: A 1996 file photo of Michael Jackson performing in Brunei. David Loh / Reuters
His ambition was seductive when he urged Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough. He offered something to everybody on Thriller, which may have been the most strategic crossover album to date: a duet with a Beatle in The Girl Is Mine, dizzying electronic beats in Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin and rock guitar in Beat It.
His established stardom helped get his African-American face onto MTV, breaking what seemed like a colour line, in what was a hugely beneficial step for both. Jackson wasn’t just an old school show business expert who could sing and dance onstage in real time; he was also more than ready for the music video era, turning his songs into high-concept video clips that fit the chorus line production of old Hollywood musicals into television-sized nuggets.
His dance moves were angular and twitchy, hinting at digital stops and starts rather than analogue fluidity—except, of course, for his famous moonwalk, the image of someone striding gracefully without ever leaving centre stage.
The world-beating success of Thriller was Jackson’s triumph and burden. He had the sales, the Grammy Awards, the screaming audiences in every country he toured. And he would spend the rest of his career trying to repeat the experience, working many of the same manoeuvres into his music: another duet, another rock guitar, another ratcheting dance track. Jackson never stopped being catchy but, behind the sheen, some of the songs grew darker and stranger, such as Smooth Criminal, with its intimations of violence, on the 1987 album Bad.
Jackson laboured; his albums came four, five, six years apart. The hip-hop era had arrived, with its bluntly candid lyrics and quick-and-dirty productions, both contrary to Jackson’s style; he tried to keep up the crossover with raps from the Notorious B.I.G., but that didn’t buy him street credibility.
The songs grew increasingly divided between benevolent messages such as Heal the World and spiteful ones including Why You Wanna Trip on Me on his 1991 album Dangerous. On his 1995 album HIStory—which started out as a greatest-hits collection but added a second album of new songs—Jackson’s fury boiled over in new songs such as They Don’t Care About Us and Tabloid Junkie.
Part of the pop audience—and critics, too—took pleasure in Jackson’s setbacks. He had long been billing himself as the King of Pop, and the cover of HIStory shows him as a giant statue, the kind that gets toppled when tinpot dictators (or pop idols) are overthrown.
The underlying sweetness that had made Jackson endearing, even at his strangest, had curdled, and he couldn’t resuscitate it for his final album, Invincible, in 2001. All the pieces he had put together, all the paradoxes that he had been able to resolve with sheer musicality, started to fall apart. He was working on a stadium spectacle for shows in London this summer, and we will never know if all his skill and showmanship could have given him a new start.
©2009/THE NEW YORK TIMES