This story was originally published in the 2009 special edition dedicated to Michael Jackson.
He was, in the end, precisely what he claimed and struggled to be: the biggest star in the world. If there had been any doubt, it ended on the afternoon of June 25th, 2009, when the news broke that Michael Jackson had died of apparent cardiac arrest in Los Angeles at age 50. The outpouring of first shock, then grief, was the largest, most instantaneous of its kind the world had ever known, short of the events of September 11th, 2001. Though the deaths of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. affected history more, and the deaths of Elvis Presley, John Lennon and Kurt Cobain signified the end of epochs, no single death has ever moved so fast around the globe, or to the forefront of all news, as swiftly as Michael Jackson’s.
In the days that followed, news channels, TV specials, feature magazines and front pages tried to understand what happened. Not so much the events of Jackson’s death – though there was confusion surrounding that – but rather the nature of his life and legacy. He was a man with a complicated personality, a man with a history that was both glorious and notorious. He was not a man that anybody felt nothing about. The most affecting statement I heard came from a young black man, Egberto Willies, whose self-chronicled video statement aired on CNN: “I grew up,” Willies said, and paused a beat, “on Michael Jackson. I loved … Michael Jackson. I hated … Michael Jackson. I admired … Michael Jackson. I was ashamed … of Michael Jackson. I was sorry … for Michael Jackson. I was proud … of Michael Jackson.”
What immediately became obvious in all the coverage is that despite the dishonor that had come upon him, despite the worst kinds of allegations against him, despite his extravagances, his idiosyncratic fears, his perceived megalomania (or narcissism) and his prolonged abandonment of his art, the world still respected Michael Jackson for the music he made for more than four decades. No single artist – indeed, no movement or force – has eclipsed what Jackson accomplished in the first years of his adult solo career. Clearly, many other artists have given us great art, great outrage, great invention and great rejuvenation – but Michael Jackson changed the balance in the pop world in a way that nobody has since. He forced rock & roll and the mainstream press to acknowledge that the biggest pop star in the world could be young and black, and in doing so he broke down more barriers than anybody. But he is also among the best proofs in living memory of poet William Carlos Williams’ famous verse: “The pure products of America/go crazy.” American music has had fewer pure products than Michael Jackson.
There is no story in popular music as providential yet as tragic as the story of Michael Jackson. Both destinies ran throughout his life, more or less from the beginning: While still a child, he became the central source of support for a large family and an incalculable asset to one of the most important record labels in history. Jackson benefited from all of that – he won fame and money, and developed a self-image that set him apart from almost everybody. He lived vast lives within himself – it’s where he brooded and transformed his resentments and desires into both blissful and fierce art. It’s also where he found his strengths, and where he kept his frailties until they became lethal foibles. Given his upbringing, you can see why he had to make that life within.
Michael’s father, Joe Jackson, was a crane operator during the 1950s, in Gary, Indiana – a place in which, according to Dave Marsh’s Trapped: Michael Jackson and the Crossover Dream, quotas were imposed on how many black workers were allowed to advance into skilled trades in the city’s mills. Black workers were paid less than the white workers, and also suffered much higher rates of fatal industry-related illnesses – but Joe Jackson held hopes that music would lift his life. Michael’s mother, Katherine Scruse, was from Alabama but was living in East Chicago, Indiana, when she met Joe. She had grown up hearing country & western music, and although she entertained her own dreams of singing and playing music, a bout of polio had left her with a permanent limp. Joe and Katherine were a young couple, married in 1949, and began a large family immediately. Their first child, Maureen (Rebbie), was born in 1950, followed by Sigmund (Jackie) in 1951, Toriano (Tito) in 1953, Jermaine in 1954, La Toya in 1956 and Marlon in 1957. Michael was born on August 29th, 1958, and Randy was born in 1961. Janet, the last born, wouldn’t arrive until 1966.
Michael and his siblings heard music all the time. Joe had a strong inclination toward the rowdy electric urban blues that had developed in nearby Chicago, and also for early rock & roll. Along with his brothers, Joe formed a band, the Falcons, and made some modest extra income from playing bars and college dances around Gary. “They would do some of the great early rock & roll and blues songs by Chuck Berry, Little Richard … you name it,” Michael wrote in his 1988 autobiography, Moonwalk. “All those styles were amazing and each had an influence on … us, though we were too young to know it at the time.”
When the Falcons folded, Joe retired his guitar to a bedroom closet, and he guarded it jealously, just as he did everything in his domain. Katherine, though, sometimes led her children in country-music singalongs, during which she taught them to harmonize. Tito, like his father, had a quick affinity for playing instruments, and one day after retrieving Joe’s guitar to practice with his brothers, he broke a string. As Michael later recalled, Joe whipped Tito for the infraction – “he let him have it” – then challenged his son to show him what he could play. As it turned out, Tito impressed his father. Maybe in those moments Joe Jackson saw a future hope blossom again. He bought Tito his own guitar and taught him some Ray Charles music, then he got Jermaine a bass. Soon he was working all his sons into an ensemble. Though Joe was at heart a blues man, he appreciated that contemporary R&B – Motown and soul – was the music that attracted his sons. Joe groomed Jermaine to be lead singer, but one day, Katherine saw Michael, just four at the time, singing along to a James Brown song, and Michael – in both his voice and moves – was already eclipsing his older brother. She told Joe, “I think we have another lead singer.” Katherine would later say that sometimes Michael’s precocious abilities frightened her – she probably saw that his childhood might give way to stardom – but she also recognized that there was something undeniable about his young voice, that it could communicate longings and experiences that no child could yet know. Michael was also a natural center of attention. He loved singing and dancing, and because he was so young – such an unexpected vehicle for a rousing, dead-on soulful expression – he became an obvious point of attention when he and his brothers performed. Little Michael Jackson was cute, but little Michael Jackson was also dynamite.
There is no story in popular music as providential yet as tragic as the story of Michael Jackson.
It’s clear that Joe Jackson was good at what he did. “He knew exactly what I had to do to become a professional,” Michael later said. “He taught me exactly how to hold a mike and make gestures to the crowd and how to handle an audience.” But by Joe’s own admission he was also unrelenting. “When I found out that my kids were interested in becoming entertainers, I really went to work with them,” he told Time in 1984. “I rehearsed them about three years before I turned them loose. That’s practically every day, for at least two or three hours. … They got a little upset about the whole thing in the beginning because the other kids were out having a good time. … Then I saw that after they became better, they enjoyed it more.” That isn’t always how Michael remembered it. “We’d perform for him, and he’d critique us,” he wrote in Moonwalk. “If you messed up, you got hit, sometimes with a belt, sometimes with a switch. … I’d get beaten for things that happened mostly outside rehearsal. Dad would make me so mad and hurt that I’d try to get back at him and get beaten all the more. I’d take a shoe and throw it at him, or I’d just fight back, swinging my fists. That’s why I got it more than all my brothers combined. I’d fight back, and my father would kill me, just tear me up.” Those moments – and probably many more – created a loss that Jackson never got over. He was essential to the family’s music making, but there was no other bond between father and son. Again, from Moonwalk: “One of the few things I regret most is never being able to have a real closeness with him. He built a shell around himself over the years, and once he stopped talking about our family business, he found it hard to relate to us. We’d all be together, and he’d just leave the room.”
Around 1964, Joe began entering the Jackson brothers in talent contests, many of which they handily won. A single they cut for the local Steeltown recording label, “Big Boy,” achieved local success. “At first I told myself they were just kids,” Joe said in 1971. “I soon realized they were very professional. There was nothing to wait for. The boys were ready for stage training, and I ran out of reasons to keep them from the school of hard knocks.” In 1966, he booked his sons into Gary’s black nightclubs, as well as some in Chicago. Many of the clubs served alcohol, and several featured strippers. “This is quite a life for a nine-year-old,” Katherine would remind her husband, but Joe was undaunted. “I used to stand in the wings of this one place in Chicago and watch a lady whose name was Mary Rose,” Michael recalled. “This girl would take off her clothes and her panties and throw them to the audience. The men would pick them up and sniff them and yell. My brothers and I would be watching all this, taking it in, and my father wouldn’t mind.” Sam Moore, of Sam and Dave, recalled Joe locking Michael – who was maybe 10 years old – in a dressing room while Joe went off on his own adventures. Michael sat alone for hours. He also later recalled having to go onstage even if he’d been sick in bed that day.
Michael and his brothers began to tour on what was still referred to as the “chitlin circuit” – a network of black venues throughout the U.S. (Joe made sure his sons kept their school studies up to date and maintained their grades at an acceptable level.) In these theaters and clubs, the Jacksons opened for numerous R&B artists, including the Temptations, Sam and Dave, Jackie Wilson, Jerry Butler, the O’Jays and Etta James, though no one was as important to Michael as James Brown.
“I knew every step, every grunt, every spin and turn,” he recalled. “He would give a performance that would exhaust you, just wear you out emotionally. His whole physical presence, the fire coming out of his pores, would be phenomenal. You’d feel every bead of sweat on his face, and you’d know what he was going through….You couldn’t teach a person what I’ve learned just standing and watching.”
The most famous site on these tours was the Apollo in New York, where the Jackson 5 won an Amateur Night show in 1967. Joe had invested everything he had in his sons’ success, though of course any real recognition or profit would be his success as well. While on the circuit, Joe had come to know Gladys Knight, who was enjoying a string of small successes with Motown, America’s pre-eminent black pop label. With the encouragement of both Knight and Motown R&B star Bobby Taylor, Joe took his sons to Detroit to audition for the label. In 1969, Motown moved the Jackson family to Los Angeles, set them up at the homes of Diana Ross and the label’s owner, Berry Gordy, and began grooming them. Michael remembered Gordy telling them, “I’m gonna make you the biggest thing in the world. … Your first record will be a number one, your second record will be a number one, and so will your third record. Three number-one records in a row.”
In 1959, Gordy founded Tamla Records – which soon became known as Motown – in Detroit. By the time he signed the Jackson 5, Motown had long enjoyed its status as the most important black-owned and -operated record label in America, spawning the successes of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Temptations, Mary Wells, the Four Tops, and Diana Ross and the Supremes, among others. In contrast to Stax and Atlantic, Motown’s soul wasn’t especially bluesy or gritty, nor was it a music that spoke explicitly to social matters or to the black struggle in the U.S. By its nature the label exemplified black achievement, but its music was calibrated for assimilation by the pop mainstream – which of course meant a white audience as much as a black one (the label’s early records bore the legend “The Sound of Young America”). At the time, rock music was increasingly becoming a medium for album-length works. By contrast, Motown maintained its identity as a factory that manufactured hit singles, despite groundbreaking albums by Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. Gordy was looking for a singles-oriented group that would not only deliver hits for young people, but would also give them somebody to seize as their own, to identify with and to adore. The Jackson 5, Gordy said, would exemplify “bubblegum soul.”
The Jackson 5’s first three singles – “I Want You Back,” “ABC” and “The Love You Save” – became Number One hits as Gordy had promised, and so did a fourth, “I’ll Be There.” The group was established as the breakout sensation of 1970. Fred Rice, who would create Jackson 5 merchandise for Motown, said, “I call ’em the black Beatles. … It’s unbelievable.” And he was right. The Jackson 5 defined the transition from 1960s soul to 1970s pop as much as Sly and the Family Stone did, and at a time when many Americans were uneasy about minority aspirations to power, the Jackson 5 conveyed an agreeable ideal of black pride, one that reflected kinship and aspiration rather than opposition. They represented a realization that the civil rights movement made possible, and that couldn’t have happened even five or six years earlier. Moreover, the Jackson 5 earned critical respectability. Reviewing “I Want You Back” in Rolling Stone, Jon Landau wrote, “The arrangement, energy and simple spacing of the rhythm all contribute to the record’s spellbinding impact.” And though they functioned as a group, there was no question who the Jackson 5’s true star was, and who they depended on. Michael’s voice also worked beyond conventional notions of male-soul vocals – even worked beyond gender. Cultural critic and musician Jason King, in an outstanding essay, recently wrote, “It is not an exaggeration to say that he was the most advanced popular singer of his age in the history of recorded music. His untrained tenor was uncanny. By all rights, he shouldn’t have had as much vocal authority as he did at such a young age.”
Fred Rice, who would create Jackson 5 merchandise for Motown, said, “I call ’em the black Beatles. … It’s unbelievable.”
For at least the first few years, Michael and his brothers seemed omnipresent and enjoyed universal praise. But soon they experienced some hard limitations. The music they were making wasn’t really of invention – they didn’t write or produce it – and after Michael was relegated to recording throwback fare like “Rockin’ Robin,” in 1972, he worried that the Jackson 5 would become an “oldies act” before he left adolescence. The Jackson 5 began pushing to produce themselves and to create their own sound. Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye had demonstrated an ability to grow and change – and sell records – when given creative leeway, and with 1974’s “Dancing Machine,” the Jacksons proved they could thrive when they seized a funk groove. Motown, however, wouldn’t consider it. “They not only refused to grant our requests,” Michael said in Moonwalk, “they told us it was taboo to even mention that we wanted to do our own music.” Michael understood what this meant: Not only would Motown not let the Jackson 5 grow, they also wouldn’t let him grow. Michael bided his time, studying the producers he and his brothers worked with. “I was like a hawk preying in the night,” he said. “I’d watch everything. They didn’t get away with nothing without me seeing. I really wanted to get into it.”
In 1975, Joe Jackson negotiated a new deal for his sons – this time with Epic Records, for a 500 percent royalty-rate increase. The contract also stipulated solo albums from the Jacksons (though the arrangement did not include Jermaine, who married Gordy’s daughter Hazel and stayed with Motown, creating a rift with the family that lasted for several years). Motown tried to block the deal, and in the end stopped the brothers from using the Jackson 5 name; the group would now be known as the Jacksons. Epic initially placed them with Philadelphia producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, but it wouldn’t be until 1978’s Destiny that the Jacksons finally seized control over their own music and recast their sound – sexy and smooth in the dance-floor hits “Blame It on the Boogie” and the momentous “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground),” and reflecting a new depth and emotional complexity in songs like “Push Me Away” and “Bless His Soul.”
Destiny, though, was merely a prelude: By the time the album was finished, Michael was ready to make crucial changes that would establish his ascendancy as a solo artist. He fired his father as his manager and in effect found himself a new father, producer Quincy Jones, whom Michael connected with while filming The Wiz (a reworking of The Wizard of Oz). Jones was a respected jazz musician, bandleader, composer and arranger who had worked with Clifford Brown, Frank Sinatra, Lesley Gore, Count Basie, Aretha Franklin and Paul Simon, and he had written the film scores for The Pawnbroker, In Cold Blood and In the Heat of the Night. Jackson liked the arranger’s ear for mixing complex hard beats with soft overlayers. “It was the first time that I fully wrote and produced my songs,” Jackson said later, “and I was looking for somebody who would give me that freedom, plus somebody who’s unlimited musically.” Specifically, Jackson said his solo album had to sound different than the Jacksons; he wanted a cleaner and funkier sound. The pairing proved as fortuitous as any collaboration in history. Jones brought an ethereal buoyancy to Jackson’s soft erotic fever on songs like “Rock With You” and “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough,” and in a stunning moment like “She’s Out of My Life,” Jones had the good sense to let nothing obscure the magnificent heartbreak in the singer’s voice. The resulting album, Off the Wall – which established Jackson as a mature artistic force in his own right – has the most unified feel of any of his works. It was also a massive hit, selling more than 5 million copies in the U.S. alone by 1985.
Michael Jackson had in effect become one of the biggest black artists America had ever produced, and he expected Off the Wall to win top honors during the 1980 Grammy Awards ceremony. Instead, it received only one honor, for Best Male R&B vocal. The Doobie Brothers’ “What a Fool Believes” won for Record of the Year, and Billy Joel’s 52nd Street won Album of the Year. Jackson was stunned and bitter. “My family thought I was going crazy because I was weeping so much about it,” he recalled. “I felt ignored and it hurt. I said to myself, ‘Wait until next time’ – they won’t be able to ignore the next album. … That experience lit a fire in my soul.”
Jackson told Jones – and apparently others as well – that his next album wouldn’t simply be bigger than Off the Wall, it would be the biggest album ever. When Thriller was released in November 1982, it didn’t seem to have any overarching theme or even a cohesive style. Instead, it sounded like an assembly of singles – like a greatest-hits album, before the fact. But it became evident fast that this was exactly what Jackson intended Thriller to be: a brilliant collection of songs intended as hits, each one designed with mass crossover audiences in mind. Jackson put out “Billie Jean” for the dance crowd, “Beat It” for the white rockers, and then followed each crossover with crafty videos designed to enhance both his allure and his inaccessibility. Yet after hearing these songs find their natural life on radio, it was obvious that they were something more than exceptional highlights. They were a well-conceived body of passion, rhythm and structure that defined the sensibility – if not the inner life – of the artist behind them. These were instantly compelling songs about emotional and sexual claustrophobia, about hard-earned adulthood and about a newfound brand of resolution that worked as an arbiter between the artist’s fears and the inescapable fact of his fame. “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ ” had the sense of a vitalizing nightmare in its best lines (“You’re stuck in the middle/And the pain is thunder. … Still they hate you, you’re a vegetable. … They eat off you, you’re a vegetable”). “Billie Jean,” in the meantime, exposed the ways in which the interaction between the artist’s fame and the outside world might invoke soul-killing dishonor (“People always told me, be careful of what you do. … ‘Cause the lie becomes the truth,” Jackson sings, possibly thinking of a paternity charge from a while back). And “Beat It” was pure anger – a rousing depiction of violence as a male stance, as a social inheritance that might be overcome. In sum, Thriller’s parts added up to the most improbable kind of art – a work of personal revelation that was also a mass-market masterpiece. It’s an achievement that will likely never be topped.
Except, in a sense, Jackson did top it, and he did it within months after Thriller’s release. It came during a May 16th, 1983, TV special celebrating Motown’s 25th anniversary. Jackson had just performed a medley of greatest hits with his brothers. It was exciting stuff, but for Michael it wasn’t enough. As his brothers said their goodbyes and left the stage, Michael remained. He seemed shy for a moment, trying to find words to say. “Yeah,” he almost whispered, “those were good old days. … I like those songs a lot. But especially—” and then he placed the microphone into the stand with a commanding look and said, “I like the new songs.” He swooped down, picked up a fedora, put it on his head with confidence, and vaulted into “Billie Jean.” This was one of Michael Jackson’s first public acts as a star outside and beyond the Jacksons, and it was startlingly clear that he was not only one of the most thrilling live performers in pop music, but that he was perhaps more capable of inspiring an audience’s imagination than any single pop artist since Elvis Presley. There are times when you know you are hearing or seeing something extraordinary, something that captures the hopes and dreams popular music might aspire to, and that might unite and inflame a new audience. That time came that night, on TV screens across the nation – the sight of a young man staking out his territory, and just starting to lay claim to his rightful pop legend. “Almost 50 million people saw that show,” Jackson wrote in Moonwalk. “After that, many things changed.”
He was right. That was the last truly blessed moment in Michael Jackson’s life. After that, everything became argument and recrimination. And in time, decay.
Before going into that area – where the story breaks in two – it’s probably worth asking, What kind of person was Michael Jackson at that time? What were his hopes and his problems? What did he want his music to say or accomplish? How did he relate to the audience who loved him, and how did he relate to himself? Up to this point, these questions haven’t really figured; Michael Jackson was an immensely talented young man – he seemed shy but ambitious, and he certainly seemed enigmatic. Nobody knew much about his beliefs or his sex life; he rarely gave interviews, but he also didn’t land himself in scandals. He did, however, describe himself as a lonely person – particularly around the time he made Off the Wall. Former Los Angeles Times music critic Robert Hilburn recently wrote of meeting Jackson in 1981, when the singer was 23, that Jackson struck him as “one of the most fragile and lonely people I’ve ever met … almost abandoned. When I asked why he didn’t live on his own like his brothers, instead remaining at his parents’ house, he said, ‘Oh, no, I think I’d die on my own. I’d be so lonely. Even at home, I’m lonely. I sit in my room and sometimes cry. It is so hard to make friends, and there are some things you can’t talk to your parents or family about. I sometimes walk around the neighborhood at night, just hoping to find someone to talk to. But I just end up coming home.’ ”
Jackson’s social uneasiness was probably formed by the wounds in his history; the children were insulated from others their age, and Jackson’s status as a lifelong star may have left him feeling not just cut off from most people, but also alien from them – as if his experience or his vocation made him extraordinary. “I hate to admit it,” he once said, “but I feel strange around everyday people.” Not exactly an unusual sentiment for some cloistered celebrities, especially former child stars. At the same time, it’s a statement full of signals: Jackson didn’t enjoy the sort of company that might guide him in positive ways. He probably never did, throughout his life. Maybe the most troubling passage in Moonwalk is when he talks about children in the entertainment world who eventually fell prey to drugs: “I can understand … considering the enormous stresses put upon them at a young age. It’s a difficult life.”
In any event, Michael Jackson seemed clearly reputable – eminent though not heroic, not yet messianic, and certainly not contemptible. Thriller placed seven singles in Billboard’s Top 10 and also became the biggest-selling album in history (presently around 50 million copies or more), and at the 1984 Grammy Awards, Jackson finally claimed his due, capturing eight awards, including Album of the Year and Record of the Year. Then, months later, it was announced that Michael would be setting out on a nationwide tour with the Jacksons. He hadn’t wanted to undertake the venture but felt obliged (“Those were slim shoulders on which to place such burdens,” he wrote of his lifelong family pressures). Clearly, his talents and aspirations went beyond the limitations that his family act imposed on him. By all rights, he should have been taking the stage alone at that point in his career.
Jackson’s aversion to the Victory Tour was apparent when he sat looking miserable at press conferences or when he had to denounce statements by his father that he interpreted as casting aspersions on the Jacksons’ management team of Ron Weisner and Freddy DeMann. “There was a time,” Joe said, “when I felt I needed white help in dealing with the corporate power structure at CBS. … And I thought [Weisner-DeMann] would be able to help.” Michael fired back furiously in a written comment to Billboard: “To hear him talk like that turns my stomach. I don’t know where he gets that from. I happen to be colorblind. I don’t hire color; I hire competence. … I am president of my organization and I have the final word on every decision. Racism is not my motto.” It was the end of any lingering business relationship between Michael and his father.
It was during this period that a backlash first set in against Jackson, though from the press more than from the public. Actually, it began before the tour, as it became apparent that Thriller was headed for unprecedented sales at a blinding rate. The mid-1980s was a time when many in the music press had misgivings about mass popularity – especially if it seemed to represent a homogenized or acquiescent culture. Michael Jackson, after all, wasn’t an artist with a message of sociopolitical revolution, nor did his lyrics reflect literary aspirations. To some then – and to some now – he represented little more than an ambition for personal fame. He wasn’t, it seemed, an artist who would accomplish for his audience what Elvis Presley and the Beatles accomplished for theirs: the sort of event or disruption that changed both youth culture and the world. In my mind, Michael Jackson, Presley and the Beatles all shared one virtue: They bound together millions of otherwise dissimilar people in not just a quirk of shared taste, but also a forceful, heartfelt consensus that spoke to common dreams and values.
But there was a trickier concern at play. The racial dimensions of Jackson’s image proved complex beyond any easy answers at that time, or even since. Some of that was attributable to charges that Jackson seemed willing to trade his former black constituency for an overwhelmingly white audience – otherwise how could he have achieved such staggering sales figures in the U.S.? But what probably inspired these race-related arguments most – the terrain where they all seemed to play out – was the topography of Jackson’s face. With the exception of later accusations about his sexual behavior, nothing inspired more argument or ridicule about Michael Jackson than that face.
In his childhood, Jackson had a sweet, dark-skinned countenance; many early Jackson 5 fans regarded him as the cutest of the brothers. J. Randy Taraborrelli, author of Michael Jackson: The Magic and the Madness, has written, “[Michael] believed his skin…‘messed up my whole personality.’ He no longer looked at people as he talked to them. His playful personality changed and he became quieter and more serious. He thought he was ugly – his skin was too dark, he decided, and his nose too wide. It was no help that his insensitive father and brothers called him ‘Big Nose.’” Also, as Jackson became an adolescent, he was horribly self-conscious about acne. Hilburn recalled going through a stack of photos with Jackson one night and coming across a picture of him as a teenager: “‘Ohh, that’s horrible,’ [Jackson] said, recoiling from the picture.”
The face Jackson displayed on the cover of Thriller had changed; the skin tone seemed lighter and his nose thinner and straighter. In Moonwalk, Jackson claimed that much of the apparent renovation was due to a change in his diet; he admitted to altering his nose and his chin, but he denied he’d done anything to his skin. Still, the changes didn’t end there. Over the years, Jackson’s skin grew lighter and lighter, his nose tapered more and more and his cheekbones seemed to gain prominence. To some, this all became fair game for derision; to others, it seemed a grotesque mutilation – not just because it might have been an act of conceit, aimed to keep his face forever child-like, but more troublingly because some believed Jackson wanted to transform himself into a white person. Or an androgyne – somebody with both male and female traits. The film Three Kings has a famous scene where an Iraqi interrogator asks a captured American soldier, “What is the problem with Michael Jackson? Your country make him chop up his face. … Michael Jackson is pop king of sick fucking country.” The soldier replies, “It’s bullshit – he did it to himself,” and the Iraqi smacks him on the head with a clipboard. “It is so obvious. A black man make the skin white and the hair straight, and you know why? … Your sick fucking country make the black man hate hisself.”
In 1985, James Baldwin wrote in an essay for Playboy, “The Michael Jackson cacophony is fascinating in that it is not about Jackson at all. I hope he has the good sense to know it and the good fortune to snatch his life out of the jaws of a carnivorous success. He will not swiftly be forgiven for having turned so many tables, for he damn sure grabbed the brass ring, and the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo has nothing on Michael. All that noise is about America, as the dishonest custodian of black life and wealth; and blacks, especially males, in America, and the burning, buried American guilt; and sex and sexual roles and sexual panic; money, success and despair… ”
Baldwin’s paragraph was sympathetic and unflinching, but it was also prescient. Michael Jackson certainly wanted to seize the ring twice: He wanted his next album to be bigger than Thriller, which was of course too much to ask. An associate of his told me in 1988, “Michael still wants the world to acknowledge him.” Maybe just as important, Jackson was also seeking vindication. He felt misjudged and maligned by much of the criticism heaped on him after the 1984 Victory Tour. He had long been taught, by both his father and Motown, that the press was a vindictive force when it came to entertainers, that it reveled in the rhythm of building a celebrity’s image, only to turn around and undermine that same person. In his case, Jackson wasn’t half wrong. Some of the scrutiny he received about his “freakishness” – his devotion to his animals as if they were his friends, his ongoing facial reconstruction, scornful charges that he slept in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber to maintain his youthfulness – was judgmental, even moralistic. Worse, too much of it came from reporters and gossip columnists, even political commentators, who displayed little if any real appreciation for Jackson’s music and little respect for the sheer genius of his work.
At that time, Jackson’s art was still his best way of making a case for himself. In 1987, he released Bad, his much-anticipated successor to Thriller. If not as eventful and ingenious as Off the Wall and Thriller, Bad was as good as any album he ever made. It was taut and funky, it had snap and fever, it radiated rage and self-pity but also yearning for grace and transcendence – particularly in “Man in the Mirror,” a song about accepting social and political responsibility, and about the artist negotiating his way back into the world. Bad sold millions and launched five Number One singles, three more than Thriller, but because it couldn’t match the accomplishments of Thriller, it was viewed as a flop.
Jackson then staged his first solo tour later that year. On several nights, I saw him turn in inspiring performances that also served as timely reminders of a sometimes overlooked truth about him: Namely that whatever his eccentricities, Michael Jackson acquired his fame primarily because of his remarkably intuitive talents as a singer and dancer – talents that were genuine and matchless and not the constructions of mere ambition or hype. Though he had the lithe frame of Fred Astaire, the mad inventiveness of Gene Kelly, the sexy agony of Jackie Wilson, the rhythmic mastery of James Brown – or of Sammy Davis Jr., for that matter – nobody else moved like Michael Jackson. Certainly nobody else broke open their moment in one daring physical display like Jackson. He didn’t invent the moonwalk – that famous and impossible backward gliding movement from his Motown 25 performance of “Billie Jean” – but it didn’t matter. He had defined himself in that moment and dared anybody else to match it, and nobody ever did. During the Bad tour his moves were breathtaking, sometimes unexpected. In the opening parts of songs like “Bad” and “The Way You Make Me Feel,” he seemed self-conscious and strained pulling off the songs’ cartoonish notion of streetwise sexuality, and his overstated hip pops and crotch snatching came off as more forced than felt. And yet when the music revved up, all the artifice was instantly dispelled. Jackson became suddenly confident and pulled off startling, robotic hip-and-torso thrusts alongside slow-motion, sliding-mime moves that left the audience gasping. Watching those quirky moves, you realized that all that came from somewhere within. You realized Jackson’s exceptional talent could not be completely separable from his eccentricity.
In 1988, he was again nominated for key Grammy Awards including Album of the Year, but he was up against hard competition. Artists like U2 and Prince had fashioned the most ambitious and visionary music of their careers – music that reflected the state of pop and the world in enlivening ways. More to the point, in 1988 there was suspicion among many observers that Jackson’s season as pop’s favorite son had passed. He would win no Grammys that year. In the Rolling Stone Readers’ poll, Jackson placed first in six of the readers’ “worst of the year” categories (including “worst male singer”); in addition, The Village Voice Critics’ Poll failed to mention Jackson’s Bad in its selection of 1987’s 40 best albums. This was a startling turnaround from four years before, when Jackson and his work topped the same polls in both publications.
Michael jackson never really regained momentum or ambition after the negative reaction to Bad. He had finally left the family home in Encino and built his own fortress estate known as Neverland, about 100 miles north of L.A., with an amusement park and train rides redolent of Disneyland. It became a place where he brought the world to him, or at least that part of the world he seemed to care about, which mainly included children – the people, he said, he felt most at home with, since part of him wanted to experience and share the childhood he felt his father and entertainment career had deprived him of. But it was also Michael’s appetite for the company of children that would create the most lamentable troubles in his life. In 1993, a story broke that Jackson was accused of molesting a 13-year-old boy with whom he had kept frequent company. It was a terribly serious accusation, and given his fondness for the company of children, the charges seemed all too credible to some observers. The story played big in not just tabloid newspapers but in some mainstream media as well. No criminal charges were filed, but in 1994 Jackson settled the matter out of court (reportedly for something in the vicinity of $20 million), which struck many as a tacit admission to the allegations. Jackson, though, categorically denied the claim. He later told British journalist Martin Bashir that he simply wanted to put the issue behind him.
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The episode did enormous damage to Jackson’s image, and perhaps to his psychology as well. It was during that time that, according to some, he developed a dependency on medications that stayed with him through the rest of his life. (Jackson’s need for drugs may also have stemmed from pains attributable to various surgeries.) That same year he unexpectedly married Lisa Marie Presley, the daughter of rock & roll’s most eminent pioneer, Elvis Presley. Some saw it as an effort to both rehabilitate and bolster his image by asserting a heterosexual authenticity, and by linking his name to even greater fame. The marriage lasted 18 months. Presley has never spoken negatively of Jackson, only affectionately, saying in the days after her ex-husband’s death that she left him only because she felt she couldn’t save him from himself. Jackson married again in 1996, this time to a nurse from his dermatologist’s office, Debbie Rowe. The couple had two children, son Prince Michael Jackson and daughter Paris Michael Katherine Jackson. Apparently, the children were the true objective of the marriage for Jackson; the couple divorced in 1999 and Rowe gave up custody of the children. (Rowe has admitted in the past that Jackson wasn’t the children’s biological father, but rather that they were conceived by artificial insemination.)
Through the course of all this, sadly, Jackson’s musical drive fell off, and the music that did emerge was only sporadically successful. His new music was often a testament of self-justification. In “Childhood,” a song from 1995’s HIStory: Past, Present and Future, he put forth his case for his otherness: “No one understands me/They view it as such strange eccentricities. … It’s been my fate to compensate/For the childhood I’ve never known/ Before you judge me, try hard to love me/ Look within your heart, then ask/Have you seen my childhood?” Two years later, still dismayed at how the media continued to judge him, Jackson lashed out in “Is It Scary,” a song from his 1997 remix album, Blood on the Dance Floor: “Am I the beast you visualized/And if you wanna see/Eccentric oddities/I’ll be grotesque before your eyes….So tell me….Am I scary for you?” His hurt and anger also began to come out more in his body over the years. Sometimes his expression looked terrified, his eyes peering over surgical masks or from behind the cover of a burqa. Other times he moved with an explosive fury, as in those moments at the end of his infamous but incredibly successful 1991 video for the song “Black or White.” Those movements seemed so different from the joyful ones of years before.
But despite good moments – and too many treacly and self-aggrandizing ones – Michael Jackson’s 1990s music had no real presence in the ongoing current of popular culture. His final album, Invincible, from 2001, yielded a few adventurous tracks – Jackson was finally accommodating the stylistic and cultural innovations made by hip-hop and other urban music forms – but overall it wasn’t enough to live up to its title. This isn’t to say that Michael Jackson was no longer a huge star but rather that his legend had transmuted: He was now known for his excesses and bad choices. He lived in a castle; he contracted another baby, Prince Michael II (whose mother has never been identified); and he then recklessly dangled the baby over a balcony in Berlin. Sometimes you had to wonder whether Jackson had any real idea how his actions struck the world – which is perhaps OK, unless you expect the world to love you unconditionally.
Jackson’s most egregious lapse of judgment became evident in a notorious 2003 interview with Martin Bashir, in which the singer professed that he still shared his bed at Neverland with children who were not his own. During one point in the broadcast, Jackson sat holding the hand of a 13-year-old boy, a cancer survivor, and explained what he saw as the innocent and loving nature of that behavior. The public response was swift and hypercritical; many thought that despite the accusations he had faced in 1993, Jackson could still act as he wanted with impunity. The reaction was so devastating to Jackson that, according to some rumors, later that year he attempted a morphine overdose; at the very least, some observers declared Jackson had committed career suicide. The controversy became as serious as possible when the boy in the video accused Jackson of fondling him. This time, the matter went to trial. The horrible drama that Jackson had landed in was in keeping with the dominant themes of his life and art: his obsessions with stardom, mystery, hubris, fear and despoiled childhood. If the charges were true, one had to wonder what Jackson truly saw when he looked at the childhoods of others. Was he capable of disrespecting their innocence, just as his own was once ruined? But if the charges weren’t true, then one had to ask what measure of satisfaction could be won in his ruin?
The 2005 trial was the spectacle everybody expected it to be – a drama about justice and celebrity, sex and outrage, morality and race. Even though it dragged on, it was clear the prosecution didn’t have a case so much as it had umbrage. The trial was a farce – it’s dismaying the case ever made it to trial – and Jackson was acquitted on all charges. But the damage done seemed, in many ways, final. Jackson walked out of the courtroom that day a shaken, listless man. His finances were also coming undone; he had been spending ludicrous sums and he’d mismanaged his money – which took some doing, since he had made such a vast fortune. The biggest star in the world had fallen from the tallest height. He left the country and moved to Bahrain; he was only occasionally seen or heard from. Nobody knew whether he could recover his name, or even preserve his considerable music legacy, until earlier this year, when he announced an incredibly ambitious series of 50 concerts – which he described as the “final curtain call” – to take place at London’s O2 arena, beginning July 13th.
It’s hard to believe that Jackson, who was so proud of his public performances and so peerless at delivering them, would have committed himself to a project in which he might fail so tremendously. At the same time, it is not inconceivable that Michael Jackson could have been a man half-hungry and broken in the past few years. All that is certain is that on June 25th, in Los Angeles, Michael Jackson met the only sure redemption he might know, in the most famous unexpected and mysterious death in current history. That redemption didn’t come because he died, but because his death forced us to reconsider what his life added up to.
What killed Michael Jackson? His life-long pursuit of fame and vindication? No doubt, in part. He pushed too hard, wanted too much; he didn’t recognize limitations. In addition, the pain of achieving so much yet being derided and dismissed time and again had to be considerable. It’s also clear that all the hatred and judgment directed his way for his peculiarities and for his rumored sexual behavior had to debilitate his spirit, if not his body. That subject of child molestation will always, of course, be a crux concern about his life, one that, for many people, clearly – and understandably – trumps his art. We will likely never know what the truth was, which is one more awful aspect of the whole nightmare. The accusation will always stay attached to his name.
What, then, saved Michael Jackson – that is, after his death? At the least, his art and his accomplishments. When somebody makes as much great music as Jackson did, our collective pleasures are enriched and our history is made more intense and complex. In his ambitions, in his setbacks and most important, in his sounds, he embodied black music history in America. But he did more: The barriers he broke helped make the modern pop world a more inclusive scene than it once was before. That is, he staked out new territory. It is always a good thing to see somebody transforming the world of known possibilities. I remember, as a kid, watching Elvis Presley do it on the Dorsey brothers’ Stage Show and The Ed Sullivan Show. I remember, as an adolescent, watching the Beatles open up whole new artistic and historic possibilities in their first U.S. appearances, live on Ed Sullivan. I remember, in my first year as a writer on the staff of Rolling Stone, watching the Sex Pistols crack old surfaces and yield a new future – even as they sang of “no future” onstage at San Francisco’s Winterland, during their last 1970s performance.
Still, I’ll never forget that night back in early 1983, when onstage in Pasadena, California, at the Motown 25th anniversary show, Michael Jackson gave his first public performance as a mature artist staking his own claim, vaulting into that astonishingly graceful, electrifying version of “Billie Jean.” Dancing, spinning, sending out impassioned, fierce glares at the overcome audience, Jackson did a powerful job of animating and mythologizing his own blend of mystery and sexuality. I’d never seen anything quite like it before. Maybe I never will again. Michael Jackson didn’t just grab the gold ring: He hooked it to a new bar and set it even higher, and nobody has yet snatched it with quite the same flair or results.