To paraphrase an old saying, the line between genius and madness has Michael Jackson at the head of it, and he’s been there since Thursday with a camp chair and a cooler full of pudding pops. That’s too easy a shot to take, though, and it leaves out the saddest thing about this sad, insecure man. Apart from the whole question of his sanity, and whether he might be dangerous to children (both his own and others’), or may be just a big overgrown Lost Boy himself, the other tragedy is that it has been so very long since any of the Jacko buzz has been about the music.

Michael Jackson in Prague in 1996

Michael Jackson in Prague in 1996. Photo: Marek Smejkal

Once upon a time, Michael Jackson was a revered musician. He started his career as an 11-year old sensation, performing with (and stealing the show from) his older brothers in a remarkable vocal/dance ensemble called the Jackson 5, the first pop group to have their first four singles hit the top. He had a few singles of his own during his early teens, including his first number one solo hit, Ben, a soundtrack song that was basically a love ballad to a rat.

Breaking out on his own as a young adult, Michael wowed audiences with the tight, exuberant Off the Wall, that set a new standard for dance music and began a long collaboration with producer Quincy Jones. This record took him way beyond his brothers, with whom he had still been performing, but gave no clue to the phenomenon that his next album would become.

To say that Thriller was a record breaker would be like saying that The Beatles had some fans in the ’60s. The album became one of the biggest sellers of all time. In addition to hit duets with Paul McCartney, iconic singles like Billie Jean and Beat It set the tone for dance pop.

Thriller’s title track made the top five, and the accompanying long form video, an elaborate mini-movie, made Jackson the first black artist to be actively promoted on MTV. Thriller remained on the charts for two years, garnering eight Grammys and a Pepsi endorsement deal. Seven of its nine tracks eventually hit the top ten. Michael Jackson had been an extremely popular R&B singer. With one album, he became the King of Pop.

Another hit duet with McCartney followed, and a collaboration with Lionel Richie on a song written for the famine relief organization USA for Africa. That song, We Are The World, became one of the fastest-selling singles ever. Jackson’s next album, Bad, further cemented his reputation and served as some distraction from the mounting tabloid murmurs about his bizarre behavior.

Michael Jackson’s Painful Descent

Apparently very self-conscious and insecure about his appearance, Jackson underwent multiple rounds of cosmetic surgery, procedures he denied having, but that undeniably changed his appearance to an unnatural, even cartoon-like, state. An accusation of child molestation provoked further negative public attention, and sadly, with no small amount of irony, Jackson began a slow descent from his moonwalking peak of fame, into a whispery morass of gossip and innuendo.

Two more albums did little more than appease diehard fans, and his portrayal of himself immortalized by an enormous statue on the cover of the pompously titled HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book 1 seemed pathetic. A 1997 remix album failed to go platinum, and although 2001’s Invincible debuted at number one and went double platinum, the singles performed poorly, and Jackson’s rancorous attack on the record company left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.

After an infamous baby-dangling incident, and with further allegations of molestation having led to his arrest and trial, the curtain fell with heavy irony on the King of Pop. Months after announcing a concert stand in London, Jackson died suddenly under mysterious circumstances. The official cause of death was cardiac-related, but allegations swirled about medical malpractice and drug misuse. Those allegations may take years to resolve, but Jackson’s final legacy was brutally denied.

Michael Jackson Best Sellers

Michael Jackson Reviews on Sonic Clash

Thriller – well-constructed, well-performed, state-of-the-art pop album


–D. Drummond