The world went a little mad. Many of his old songs went straight back to the top of the charts even though he had not performed in a long time and had become judged more by his lifestyle than his creative contributions. Now that the dust has settled a bit, what did this mean?
His music was the soundtrack of the youth of almost an entire generation. For many, his work drew two responses: you liked him or you hated him. Most liked him, especially when Quincy Jones and he revived the entire Western pop music industry with Thriller in the 1980s. His music made fans often dance or cry. Cry is an exaggeration perhaps, but even luminaries were sometimes moved.
I remember seeing him speak and sing at Bill Clinton’s inauguration gala in 1993, dedicating a song called Gone Too Soon to a young man who died of AIDS. Appealing to the administration to commit more resources to research, his performance drew a standing ovation from the President and First Lady, who were visibly touched.
A girlfriend first introduced me to his music as a teenager in the early 1980s. Later, I watched him live in the summer of 1988 in Amsterdam, when he was at the apex of his fame and craft. His studio music stood out. But live, I remember feeling, he was astonishing.
His London concerts from that Bad tour, now on YouTube, must be among his best live performances and perhaps the most exhilarating by any artist in that decade. Effortlessly doing what at the time only he could do, he etched himself into millions of memories. Almost at war with the dance floor and friends with the air, he could convince his fans he was a bit like Peter Pan.
I remember watching him dancing to Billy Jean, when the darkness of the warm summer evening had set in, to only the heavy beat. For minutes he moved and danced, in a black stadium under a bright spotlight with no singing and no music, just the drums. It mesmerized 50,000 people and the waves of electrifying joy that went through the crowds were amazing.
Like water on fire, it was transfixing and as youngsters, there was a feeling that we witnessed some sort of epic moment of our generation.
Close to a hundred girls must have passed out. Their motionless bodies were carried over our heads on the hands of the crowd, to the front where they were gently taken over by huge numbers of security guards who brought them to the medical teams at both sides of the stadium.
For two hours, he lifted an entire stadium of people up slightly above themselves, kept them there in a state of trance, before gently putting them down again with both feet on the ground. With the beep of the music still ringing in their ears, the crowd left the stadium in relative silence. They found themselves brought back to reality. For a few hours, they had drifted in a more inspired universe. But now they were back in a more mundane, paler world where life’s possibilities seemed a bit less exciting. Just as we felt we had befriended his presence, he was gone again.
As the 1990s unfolded, his face began to express more and more pain. My sense was that he was a man of great darkness and yet of extraordinary sensitivity, and that the combination in the end destroyed him. Some claimed he calculated that the controversy surrounding him made him ever more famous and helped to keep record sales up—all the while complaining about it. Yet, the longer it continued, the more unhappy and dysfunctional he looked, which drew more harsh responses that in turn seemed to pain him so much that things began to spiral out of control.
His appearance changed and began to stand out in ever greater contrast to what he looked like when he was in life’s prime. Apparently at 50, he regretted some of the surgery that he had undergone. While performing live, he seemed in touch with a magical, invisible world. Sadly, in his daily life little of that seemed to be left when he left.
Fans always idolize their idols, of course. But what was extraordinary in his case was that the performer and the man seemed one and the same. Many could somehow identify with him as an extraordinarily gifted man from another planet who suffered the negative consequences on earth of his tremendous talents.
In the end, perhaps he must be forgiven for everything that seemed strange or wrong about him. The common denominator opinion is always blunt and hardly ever a proper measure of the validity of any individual life. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of his being was that the spirit from which he performed on stage seemed to transcend what we knew about his person.
It was perhaps not just his music or even his dancing that most set him apart from other artists of his time, but his apparent roots in another world that transcended countries and cultures. As he said himself, “My creativity is not mine, it is God’s." Perhaps it was. And maybe it explained the feeling of loss around the world after he himself had finally gone too soon.
Tjaco Walvis is the managing director of brand consulting
and advertising agency THEY India, and a speaker at the Outstanding Speakers’ Bureau. He writes a fortnightly column on the softer cultural aspects of marketing that
often tend to be ignored by marketers.