The scenes are etched in our collective memory, images that will forever identify our times: A precocious whirling dervish alongside his big brothers. A sparkle of sequins gliding backwards — moonwalking — across a concert stage. A white-gloved blur of motion on MTV.
Michael Jackson long ago made history. He’s now officially part of our cultural past. Jackson, the most super of pop music’s superstars, died Thursday of a heart attack in Los Angeles. He was 50.
In recent years, Jackson’s name was more commonly found on the gossip pages than on the pop charts, the child star who had never quite grown up.
But it was the sheer force of his talent, which produced more than five dozen Top 40 hits, that had established his name. Jackson’s influence was massive and wide-ranging, setting standards in music, dance, video and fashion — even redefining the very nature of celebrity. The rare musician to garner critical acclaim matching his commercial clout, he was rivaled by perhaps only Elvis Presley as America’s most prominent solo artist.
Detroit had him early: With his older brothers in the Jackson 5, the Gary, Ind., native was signed by Berry Gordy Jr. to Motown Records in 1969. Jackson and his siblings tasted success from the get-go, rolling onto Billboard’s pop charts with four consecutive No. 1 hits.
It was his 1983 appearance at Motown’s 25th anniversary concert that sent him into fame’s stratosphere, as he debuted his electrifying moonwalk move for a national TV audience.
Jackson was more than a star: He was a phenomenon. If you were alive in 1983 and 1984, you witnessed something you’ll likely never again experience: Jackson was everywhere, inescapable, effortlessly racking up hits as he rocketed to larger-than-life status across the globe. The splintering of popular culture, wrought by the Internet, has likely rendered such a feat impossible to duplicate.
Yet he was seemingly shy, his fragile speaking voice often mimicked by comics. The world became fascinated by Jackson’s descent into weirdness, and by the ’00s, his celebrity eclipsed his music. Chatter during the past decade focused on his plastic surgeries, his quirky public appearances, his possessive ownership of the Beatles’ song catalog.
For some, sympathy may be hard to muster: Acquitted in 2005 on charges of child molestation — and having settled an earlier allegation for $23 million — Jackson has been viewed by some as another rich celebrity who skirted justice.
Still, death will likely bring a perspective that Jackson’s later years had obscured: When all is said and done, it was Jackson’s monumental body of work that made the world care in the first place. It was the kinetic euphoria of “Dancing Machine.” The sweet swing of “Rock with You.” The svelte, ageless cool of “Billie Jean.”
As a singer, he was literally inimitable: With a multi-octave, whiplash-inducing range, Jackson combined a raw R&B expressiveness with a lucid pop clarity. By his 20s, he was a formidable songwriter, blessed with an intuitive ear for classic song structures and hooks. And he was a dancer to behold, sending teenagers scrambling to their mirrors to recreate his smooth, nimble moves.
Many black musicians had enjoyed mainstream success, but none had approached the magnitude of Jackson’s crossover appeal. Jackson’s Motown peers absorbed the news with a sense of shock Thursday afternoon, including Smokey Robinson.
“He’s too messed up right now to even talk about it,” said Courtney Barnes, Robinson’s spokesman and a Jackson family friend. “It’s chaos. Everyone is freaked out.”
“He was a perfectionist and he was a brilliant genius in his field, and he will be recognized as one of the world’s greatest composers, entertainers and humanitarians,” said Don Barden, the Detroit business mogul who paired up with Jackson in a failed attempt to win a Detroit casino license. “And once you got to know him he was a down to earth guy who missed his childhood.”
In July 1998, Jackson joined Barden in Detroit to announce that the pair would build a $1 billion resort and theme park near the Ambassador Bridge if Barden got a casino.
The circumstances of Jackson’s death were not immediately clear. He was not breathing when Los Angeles Fire Department paramedics responded to a call at his Los Angeles home about 12:30 p.m. PDT Thursday, Capt. Steve Ruda told the Los Angeles Times. The paramedics performed CPR and took him to UCLA Medical Center, Ruda told the newspaper.
Word of Jackson’s death — initially broken by the gossip site TMZ.com — immediately became the talk of the world. Within minutes of the news, a multiracial cast of Detroiters filled the aisles at the Fort & First Service gas station, discussing his death. Jackson had finally succumbed to the stress, they speculated. The world had been out to get him. His reputation had been smashed.
“We just suffered a great loss,” said Phillip Williams, 29. “Michael Jackson was the greatest performer of all time.”
Barden said he “earnestly believes” that the abuse charges once leveled against Jackson were not true.
“I’ve never gotten into his personal affairs, and we dealt strictly with business,” said Barden.
“He wanted to do so many things, and he was very concerned about the how the news media … and all the notoriety of charges leveled against him. He took that very hard,” said Barden. “Other than that, he was disappointed in how the world would not recognize his achievements and his accomplishments in the music world.”
Jackson is survived by three children: Michael Joseph Jackson, Jr., Paris Michael Katherine Jackson and Prince “Blanket” Michael Jackson II.
(c) 2009, Detroit Free Press. Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.