How do you know you’ve made an indelible impact on culture?
Listen: this story has been told so many times it is inextricable from the history of America. F. Scott Fitzgerald infamously (and incorrectly) declared that there are no second acts in American lives, but he was writing his own epitaph at the time. Little did he know that artists, and later, politicians, would perfect the Lazarus routine to the point that it was itself an art form of sorts.
Some great American artists could not handle the hype of their success, or remained paralyzed by the prospect of following up their uncanny grand slam (think Ralph Ellison after Invisible Man for the prototype). Some artists famously flamed out in part because of the pressure or else were consumed by their own demons (insert any number of movie stars and rock gods: James Dean and Charlie Parker remain the heavyweight champs of this routine). Some artists never had a choice in the matter: what can we say about the fact that Melville received less than a little acclaim after he wrote Moby Dick (even his good friend and contemporary critical darling Nathaniel Hawthorne–to whom Melville’s masterpiece was dedicated–thought little of the book, revealing him as either an exceedingly poor judge of genius or else an insecure literary prince who could not brook the very real competition Melville presented), and the man who may be our great American author (at least of the 19th Century) died broke, unknown, and embittered.
But none of these case studies can come close to approximating the one-of-a-kind wunderkind who became the King of Pop. His story is unique and will likely remain the triumphant and ultimately tragic cultural touchstone of our times. He had already lived at least three lives before he died, each one more improbable than the last.
I will leave the career-spanning overviews and detail-oriented obituaries to the myriad individuals who are more qualified (not to mention more interested) than I to properly assess Jackson’s short and unhappy existence.
I can offer some opinions and recollections of what it was like, in real time, to witness Jackson’s awesome and irresistible trajectory. Any pronouncement, no matter how passionately proposed, is ultimately irrelevant regarding what constituted the ideal demographic for MJ’s steady rise and sluggish fall. All I can say is that I was a kid in the ’70s and I remember loving the Jackson Five songs and watching their cartoon reruns on TV. In other words, I was the ideal age to experience it, and still remember it. To assert that Michael was the all-American pop icon is both facile and also an indication of how naive and blissfully unaware people my age were to…well, too many things to count. But in MJ’s case, young fans were oblivious to the behind the scenes angst that crippled his childhood. That he was abused is undeniable and well-documented. It also scarcely scratches the surface of the pressures and pains that were inflicted upon him. Even a cursory acknowledgment of what he’d been through, before becoming a teenager, should leave the most cynical critic astonished that he was able to create the lasting work he did, as an adult.
Flash forward to 1979: Off The Wall was the ubiquitous hit record and every time you turned the radio on you heard “Rock With You” (which, incidentally, sounds every bit as fresh and funky three decades later). MJ was on top of the world. It seems fair to suggest that nobody, including the young superstar, had any idea that he was about to own the world.
Thriller, of course, changed everything. It made all that came before it prelude and everything, especially the not-so-good things, that came after an epilogue. People who weren’t around then probably can’t imagine it, but Jackson was the biggest thing in the universe circa 1983 (and into 1984). It wasn’t even close: he was as prevalent as Coca Cola or McDonalds, and it was easy to avoid him as it was to avoid breathing. If you were alive, you were aware. Like it or not.