If a picture says a thousand words, then the words “Michael Jackson” say a thousand pictures. Whether it’s the young Michael, performing with his brothers as the Jackson Five, to his breakout solo performances like “Billie Jean” and “Thriller”, to his physical transformation and legal troubles in later years, Michael is an icon of our time and our culture. Close your eyes. You can still see him jamming with his brothers. Transforming into a monster in red leather. Moonwalking. The glove. Attending his child molestation trial in his pajamas. From Ed Sullivan, to MTV, to Court TV, Michael grew up before our eyes.
There is an entire generation that only know Michael Jackson as the “Wacko Jacko” of tabloid fame. Most of the people I work with, college-age kids who consider acts like Linkin Park “old school”, never saw Michael Jackson perform in his prime. There is still, thanks to sites like YouTube, evidence of the greatness that was Jackson’s career. The King of Pop was the most energetic and dynamic performer I have ever seen. Spinning and sliding, he moved in a way that was almost superhuman in its utter smoothness. To this day, I have yet to see another human being pull of a Moonwalk with the ease and fluidity of its creator. His concerts were to us what P. T. Barnum’s circus was to another generation—a cultural phenomenon that transcended race and class, an event that baffled the senses and went far beyond reasonable expectations of entertainment. The bestselling album of all time, dozens of number one hits, Neverland.
Then, as we all know, it went to shit. Paparazzi. Plastic surgery. Child molestation charges. More plastic surgery. More child molestation charges. The odd marriages. The three children. The masks and the sunglasses and the skin that lightened like a sick dawn. All of that was part of the story, but today we do not care.
There will be a great deal of debate over the legacy Michael Jackson leaves behind. To people my age and older, we will remember Michael the Performer, the peerless master of frenzied crowds across the globe, the most beloved musician of his age. To others, mostly the young, he will be recalled as Michael the Freak Show, the damaged ten-year old locked into a adult body that seemed to fall apart before our eyes.
I have my own theories about Michael Jackson. Raised from poverty to a level of fame and fortune that most of us cannot possibly imagine, Michael is the purest distillation of the American Dream. No one has traveled so far, so fast, along that path. Like a diver rising too fast from deep water, there were pains to be had from such a climb. Michael grew up in series of boxes—the first of his parents’ making, then one made from his stardom, and finally one of his own making designed to preserve the stunted life he was forced to give up at an early age. Michael Jackson, mentally and emotionally, never grew from the time he entered the public domain and we took possession of his soul. We, the raving masses screaming for his favor and his talent, we created the tragedy that played out over the last two decades of his life. As soon as we sensed vulnerability in the superstar’s mental state, we set up the 24/7 crazy watch, looking for more and more to justify our opinions that, somehow, we were better than this demigod we had ourselves made.
So, rest in peace, Michael. Hopefully, you are somewhere where there are no cameras and only music.