Regardless of how you felt about Michael Jackson when he was alive, it is difficult to deny the extensive and irreplaceable contributions he made to music. It is also difficult to deny his truly amazing ability to reinvent himself as an artist in spite of --and in the face of-- personal tragedy and public scandal. As frail as he seemed, especially toward the end, Michael never stopped working on his image and music. A life lived in the public eye taught Michael from a young age to never stop moving. Sometimes forward, sometimes backward, and often times in circles. The Michael Jackson brand was truly malleable. For four decades he captivated us, for better or worse. Even in death he continues to do so.
Let's ease on down, ease on down the road of Michael’s transformations...
1969. The Jackson Five perform on the Hollywood Palace. Introduced by Diana Ross (with a little help from Sammy Davis, Jr.), an 11-year-old, green polyester-donning Michael sings “Can You Remember.” Even though the choreography feels a bit awkward, forced and work-horse like, Michael’s vocals are riveting (especially knowing what we know now about the physical and emotional abuse that took place in the family).
1979. Michael records Off The Wall, one of the best pop albums of all time. Michael is growing up into quite the strapping young man at this point, glowing white socks and “Evening at the Improv” album cover and all.
1980. Michael manages his solo career and his position as the lead singer and songwriter for The Jacksons simultaneously. Enter the awesomeness that was the single “Can You Feel It?” Michael claps fire, single-handedly lifts a rainbow into the sky and, in a strange foreshadowing to the 1984 Pepsi commercial filming mishap, has flames shooting out of his head.
1982. Michael releases the monster album Thriller. Seven of the nine songs are chart hits, among them “Beat It.” A cross-over track, “Beat It” appealed to both R&B and rock fans and paved the way for greater acceptance of black artists among white audiences. The video for “Beat It” also was one of the first truly cinematic music videos. An homage to West Side Story, it reminds us of the power of dance. Just one year later, Michael continues to remind us of this power with his signature Moonwalk.
Then things started changing. In 1987, the album Bad was released. The video for the single is awkward to watch, due to the incessant crotch grabbing.
A strange period followed, from which Michael never seemed to recover -- personally or publicly. Among other things, Michael was diagnosed with vitiligo, got really skinny, underwent excessive plastic surgery and bought the remains of the Elephant Man. He also adopted and wore matching outfits with Bubbles the chimp and showed signs of a messiah complex, placing giant statues of himself all over Europe to promote the album “HIStory.”
As he changed, he withdrew. In his infrequent appearances, he appeared alien, in turn alienating millions of fans. The media reported bizarre “slumber parties” at Neverland Ranch. Allegations and law suits followed. It became impossible to relate to Michael and taboo to do so. This inability to relate to the artist made it difficult to appreciate the art.
In the end, death proved a greater equalizer for Michael (and for all his iterations and reinventions). Much more than a farewell tour ever could have, the end of his controversial life gave the public freedom to celebrate the art that had long been shadowed by the artist. Entertainment Weekly's Chris Nashawaty echoes this point, asserting that "Jackson’s triumphant comeback has finally been realized in a way that it never possibly could have been if he were alive. As sad as it is to write these words, maybe this tragedy was the only way he could be truly forgiven and loved again. Maybe his death is the only way we can all make peace, once and for all, with Michael Jackson.”
For the first time in a very long time, Michael is not a walking contrast between what was, what is and what could have been. As we mourn the passing of his complicated and sad life, we make the space once again to concentrate on his music. Millions of fans all over the world are paying tribute to “their” Michael. For some, that may be the adorable child prodigy belting out the tunes in the Jackson Five. For others, the young, suave pop star leaning against a brick wall in a tuxedo and glowing white socks. And for many, the man in the white suit reclining confidently on the cover of the best-selling album of all time.