Thursday, June 25, 2009
King of Pop
Michael Jackson died at age 50 in Los Angeles today.
I have to let it sink in, because he was a child star who became a musical icon in the 1980s and one of the most famous celebrities in the world.
My first experience hearing his music came in the 1970s when he was still in the Jackson 5 with his brothers. I didn't think much of him at the time. Then came the 1982 album "Thriller" and my respect for him as an entertainer exploded. "Thriller" was the breakthrough album for Jackson. Everybody owned it, even the kids who were into heavy metal. It was the one album by Jackson that you had because it was such a cultural phenomenon, every song a pop gem.
Why? Yeah, it had the title song with a guest narration by Vincent Price, but it also had songs like "BIllie Jean," "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'", "Beat It", Human Nature" and "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)".
Even if you banged your head with Quiet Riot or rocked out to Def Leppard, you owned "Thriller."
The video for "Thriller" was a pivotal moment for MTV. I remember taping it when if first aired, and being blown away by the chorus of dancing zombies. Yeah, the kids snickered at him for his less-than-masculine movements, high-pitched voice and his tendency to grab his crotch more than an Italian man, but when he sang and danced you knew the guy had talent. You knew he was unique among entertainers.
Unfortunately, after "Thriller", Jackson began his gradual slide into weirdness. Maybe he was a victim of his own success or eccentricities. There was when he tried to buy the bones of the Elephant Man, Bubbles the Chimp, the Neverland Ranch with all of the amusement rides, the llamas, the sleepovers with kids, wearing one diamond-studded glove, the whole dangling the baby out of the window thing, the skin turning pasty white, the plastic surgery that made him look like the Phantom of the Opera and the allegations of child abuse. Within a few years he went from a respected cultural icon to a pariah and outcast.
The comedians ate it up. The media skewered him and said he was this bizarre creepy character, a rhinestone jacket-wearing Howard Hughes, cramped in his childlike Xanadu, moonwalking away from the media that adored him decades before.
What can be said about a man whose fame defined him, whose life is bigger than the sum total of his work?
Was he an oddball? Yeah, but he was no different from the most over-publicized lunatics running amuck in Hollywood today.
The difference between Michael Jackson and the bumper crop of drunken harlots and chiseled playboys is Michael Jackson actually had talent. He wasn't all gaudiness and superficial media stunts. Somewhere within was a person who had a very real gift, a unique voice that is now silent.
When the history of popular music is written, he'll go down as a transformative figure, a modern day Elvis who fought for his fame and in many ways, who changed the face of musical culture.