The world has lost a musical visionary yes, but we’ve also perhaps lost a certain kind of celebrity. Quite simply, it seems impossible that anyone can attain that level of fame ever again; he sold untold millions of albums, including a purported 100 million of Thriller, which came out when he was only 24. Seven of Thriller’s nine tracks were top ten singles. The videos were era-defining and still unsurpassed in terms of vision, creativity, and innovation.
And with all due respect to Bad, released five years later, the rest was mostly a tragedy. Or rather, it was the ongoing culmination of a uniquely tragic boyhood that included parental abuse, unbelievable success at an early age, and professional/corporate theft. Michael was only 14 when the Jackson 5 split up and left Motown. That he picked up the pieces at all is stunning and testament to his gifts; that he triumphed, artistically and commercially, to such a degree, is mind-boggling and the justification for his immense fame; that he came crashing down in a haze of paranoia, physical self-immolation, and (to be generous) confused romantic/sexual habits is nearly inevitable. His death at only 50 is certainly awful, but it was a long time coming. From a certain angle, this looks more like the most prolonged suicide in public history.
What’s struck me in the hours since his death is how unironically Jackson is being celebrated by people of all ages. I was born after Thriller, and grew up at a time when Jackson often seemed like a mere curio, a has-been, a sex offender, a punch line. And yet, despite the public drubbing his image received (both by the media and by Michael himself), the music never stopped amazing people. First thing after getting home and discussing the news, my wife and I put on “Baby Be Mine.” It still kills, even if, like always, the performances on Thriller still strike me as angry, paranoid, and tense. He denies accusations of parenthood, pulls in Vincent Price to help out on the greatest-ever Grand Guignol party jam, examines group violence, and, in the incredible “Wanna Be Startin’ Something,” piles on voices until incessant babble takes over the song. Even a love song like “Human Nature” finds its main hook in telling a woman not to worry about public skepticism. And yet it’s all so danceable, so approachable, and so human. That was his gift, while it lasted.