Michael Jackson was by many measurements the most successful recording artist of all time, and yet, by the impossibly high standards he set, his career was in decline before he died while rehearsing for a series of comeback concerts. The outpouring of emotion from fans after his death prompted the final shift in his media-saturated image. Once called the King of Pop, Jackson had been redubbed Wacko Jacko for his eccentric behavior. In death, he assumed the dimensions of a tragic figure.
Jackson already enjoyed stardom as an adolescent. Superstardom followed only after the release in late 1982 of Thriller, which held the number one position on the Billboard album chart for 37 weeks and produced an unprecedented seven Top-10 singles. It remains the best selling album in the history of recorded sound, not just in the United States, but also across the world. Thriller placed Jackson on par with Elvis Presley and the Beatles as a generational symbol, yet he was never able to shape popular culture to their degree. Jackson started no fashion revolutions, seldom questioned authority, and exerted a relatively modest influence on the direction of music given his enormous sales. His cultural legacy is ambiguous. Unlike Elvis and the Beatles, he played no formative role in the new musical movements of his time. Jackson embraced disco and hip-hop with great success, while punk and grunge were anathema to his image and style. In 1992, the epochal grunge album, Nirvana’s Nevermind, displaced Jackson’s album, Dangerous, from the top spot on the Billboard chart. He seized the spotlight of a celebrity culture that already existed and the spotlight eventually burned him.
Given the increasing fragmentation of the popular music audience in the years since its release, as well as the proliferation of new delivery systems for music and the declining importance of the album as a coherent work of art, Thriller may represent the apogee of the LP. It is unlikely that any one album will ever again dominate the imagination of a generation and shape the cultural moment to the extent of Thriller.
Although the recordings he made in its wake sold millions of copies, the album was also the zenith of Jackson’s career. Thriller became the summit that could never be topped, or even regained. At the time of its release, popular radio formats in the United States were largely segregated along racial lines into rock and R&B formats, music whose roots were entangled but had grown apart since the 1960s. Thriller burst across those boundaries. One of its singles, “Beat It,” featuring guitarist Eddie Van Halen, was a hit on rock radio stations where post-1960s black voices were seldom heard. At the same time, the disco-driven “Billie Jean” filled dance floors across the world and “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” scaled the R&B charts. To be young in 1983 was to hear Jackson’s music everywhere. Much like Elvis before him, Jackson embraced whatever caught his attention without distinction to their sources. He had roots, but was able to transcend them.
Thriller’s wide appeal was not entirely uncalculated. Produced by music industry veteran Quincy Jones, Thriller was intended to dispel racial barriers within pop music and cross over to as many audiences as Jackson was capable of reaching. It was built to sell. At the same time, it would not have sold without the unique charisma Jackson brought to his material, which was specific enough to be autobiographical yet broad enough to be universal. With Thriller, Jackson spoke in a sincere voice to the common dreams and anxieties of the moment.
And yet, as some African American critics pointed out even before Thriller left the charts, there was a sinister side to his enormous popularity. Jackson was accused of deliberately striving for the broadest possible international audience by leaving his ethnic heritage behind and desperately “passing” for white. When the adolescent entered the spotlight as lead singer of the Jackson 5, he was obviously black. By the time he posed for the cover of Thriller, his appearance already had undergone changes. His nose was surgically altered and his skin had lightened to a deep tan. The changes grew more dramatic in later years until he shrank into a grotesque figure. Well before the end of his life, his face was chalk white and his nose had been subjected to so many operations that, according to rumor, it was removable.
Jackson claimed that he had broken his nose during a dance rehearsal, necessitating surgery, and suffered from a rare skin disease. African American critics charged him with a self-loathing denial of his own identity. Other observers wondered whether he might have been stung by his defeat at the 1980 Grammy Awards. The album preceding Thriller, Off the Wall, charted high enough for Jackson to be considered America’s best selling black recording artist, and yet he won only for Best Male R&B Vocal. Perhaps Jackson felt he would never receive the accolades he deserved if he remained black. His change of appearance in time for Thriller probably boosted his popularity in the United States and abroad by helping him evade the issue of race. On the cover of Thriller, he could have been a citizen of anywhere. By the 1990s, he could only have been the king of Neverland, his fantasy home and private amusement park near Santa Ynez, California.
Jackson grew up with eight siblings in Gary, Indiana, still an industrial hub in the 1960s. His father, Joseph, worked in a factory but was driven by frustrated musical ambitions. By the time Michael was five years old, Joseph began to instill his dream into his children, rehearsing them each day three hours before and three hours after school, drilling his boys into the crack unit that became the Jackson 5. Childhood was spent touring a seedy circuit of bars and nightclubs. Joseph employed physical and psychological abuse in an effort to mold his children into stars. Michael’s mother, Katherine, was a benevolent figure, and throughout his later life, he would lean on the support of older women such as Diana Ross and Elizabeth Taylor. Katherine became a Jehovah’s Witness; her faith left him with an unsatisfied spiritual yearning. Michael had virtually no opportunity for a normal childhood and would seek to recreate what he missed on a lavish scale after Thriller. He became devoted to the model of Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up.
The endless childhood of his adult years was still far away in 1968 when the Jackson 5 were signed by Motown Records, one of the United States’ most prosperous and prevalent black-owned businesses. Motown’s slogan, “The Sound of Young America,” staked the label’s ambition. Motown sought to sell beyond its base of black R&B fans to the larger white pop audience, but without denying their music’s African American roots. Under the stern guidance of the label’s founder and father figure, Berry Gordy, the Jackson 5, and later Michael as a soloist, enjoyed a string of bright, soul-accented Top-10 pop hits, including “ABC” (1969), “I Want You Back” (1969), “I’ll Be There” (1970), and “Got to Be There” (1972). Gordy already identified the truth: Michael was the star and his brothers were reflected lights at best, satellites in the Jackson cosmos. They were often relegated to posing for photographs.
There were arguments within the family. Michael’s brother Jermaine married Gordy’s daughter, while the other brothers chafed under a regimen permitting them little control over their recordings or their career. Aside from Jermaine, the Jacksons (as the group was now officially called) left Motown in 1975 for Epic Records, where Michael was allowed to develop as a songwriter. Although the group was a top selling act in the R&B and disco arenas, their popularity among pop audiences receded. Michael tried his hand at acting, playing the Scarecrow in the movie version of the Broadway musical The Wiz (1978), an African American adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. The movie failed at the box office, but the production introduced Jackson to its music director, Quincy Jones. Their fruitful collaboration on Off the Wall (1979) set the stage for Thriller.
The success of Thriller led Jackson down an unanticipated creative avenue. When MTV debuted in 1981, the cable channel revolutionized the presentation and marketing of music, but largely restricted its content to white rock acts. Thriller ’s popularity opened the door to Jackson’s videos for “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” and “Thriller,” whose storytelling concepts influenced other music videos and showcased the singer’s prowess as a dancer. One part Elvis, one part Fred Astaire, and two parts James Brown, Jackson’s dancing became crucial to his image and popularity. His choreography was more influential than his music; his dance steps became an element of global pop culture and were replicated in places as unexpected as India’s “Bollywood” film musicals. Jackson’s presence on MTV opened the mostly white channel to other African American artists.
As King of Pop in the aftermath of Thriller’s success, Jackson found a suitable partner in the daughter of the King of Rock and Roll, Lisa Marie Presley. Their brief marriage (1994–1996) provided additional material for gossip and speculation, given his increasingly asexual, androgynous appearance. Hounded by the photographers, Jackson was a vulnerable, fragile creature who shrank as much as possible from the adult world. He seemed more at ease with children than with grown-ups, which in light of his oddness, especially his ready admission to sleeping with children at Neverland, lent salacious interest and credibility to the charges of child molestation brought against him in 1993 and 2003. Jackson paid medical bills for needy children and spent time with children dying of AIDS. In light of the tabloid rumors that buzzed around him, his intentions invited suspicion. His trials became mass entertainment, and in the manner of Hollywood courtroom drama, the prosecution withered as defense attorneys cast doubts on the veracity of the accusers.
The legal troubles of Michael Jackson eclipsed everything else in the final years of his life and were emblematic of the media-stoked celebrity obsession of mainstream society. Facts and rumors were peddled in the 24/7 news cycle; cable talk show hosts declared Jackson guilty before court proceedings were underway; anxious fans crowded around cameras outside the courthouse; and the Internet fanned unsubstantiated rumors. In the end, Neverland was seized to pay creditors and Jackson died in a rented house under the care of an overly compliant physician subsequently charged with malpractice and manslaughter for the prescriptions he wrote, on which Jackson overdosed.
His celebrity destroyed Jackson, but he became a celebrity because his music, and especially Thriller, mattered to millions of listeners. Thriller was emblematic of the blockbuster mentality that subsumed American and world culture in the 1970s and 1980s. Like the television series Roots and the Star Wars movies, Thriller redefined how large and inclusive pop culture could be and narrated a set of stories held in common by an audience too large to be segregated by race, class, or gender.
—Glen Jeansonne and David Luhrssen
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