When Michael Jackson tragically died two weeks ago, millions were shocked. The wonder, though, is not that the troubled pop-music megastar died at the relatively young age of 50 under regrettable circumstances, but that he was able to live as long as he did.
Yet even as headlines continue to be dominated his complicated estate, gargantuan memorial service in Los Angeles, and custody of his kids — and that’s no doubt just a fraction of the fallout from his demise — it’s clear that the contradictions that fueled his life will become his legacy, as well.
In the days since his passing, friends, biographers, and hangers-on have gossiped that beneath the image of a perpetually youthful superstar that Jackson tried so hard to cultivate was in reality a tired, anorexic middle-aged man who had spent years struggling with prescription drugs.
In truth, almost everything about the Jackson persona proved to be fantasy — an Oz-like projection on the screen powered by a strange fellow behind the curtain desperately struggling with gears and levers.
The kindly and soft-spoken Jackson may have given millions to children’s charities and built a child’s dream theme park at his Santa Barbara Neverland ranch. He even talked in near-childlike fashion. And yet, on two occasions, the children’s advocate was accused of sexual molestation of boys. He settled out of court in one instance and was acquitted in a criminal trial on the second, but Jackson strangely said he saw nothing wrong in sharing his bed with minors.
Jackson always wanted to be seen as a Peter Pan–like innocent. Yet again, his performance videos were sexually charged, as he often grabbed his crotch or strutted about in other lascivious dance moves before legions of under-age fans.
He talked much about the importance of family, truth, and innocence. But he sadly grew up in a dysfunctional family with an abusive father. Now, questions have been raised of the true parentage of Jackson’s own three children.
Jackson was heralded as a path-breaker by the black community. At last week’s annual BET Awards show, the host, actor and singer Jamie Foxx, exclaimed, “He belongs to us, and we shared him with everybody else.” Yet Jackson underwent serial plastic surgeries and pigment-changing procedures to transform his appearance to that of a white person. As Quincy Jones, who produced the legendary Thriller album confessed, “He obviously didn’t want to be black.”
Jackson earned well over a billion dollars during his lifetime, and at one point may have had assets worth half a billion dollars. But he died owing more than he was worth, with almost no cash on hand. He finally signed on to a marathon 50-show concert stint in London, likely in part to solve his deepening financial woes. But it was an impossible gambit, given his worsening physical condition.
Yet in tragic irony, Jackson’s death led to soaring record sales and new merchandising that may make those in his will rich in a way they would never have been had the bankrupt and fading former superstar lived another twenty years.
How then will posterity assess Michael Jackson? Thriller remains the best-selling record of all time, and a number of his others were nearly as successful. His stage magnetism rivaled that of Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. And yet few of Jackson’s hits are memorable in the way that dozens of songs of the Beatles or Bob Dylan continue to reverberate timelessly through popular culture.
Jackson had meteoric early success, but, unlike the ageless Rolling Stones, was not able to maintain his earlier pace, or adapt to new tastes and genres. The moonwalking Jackson clearly had the natural dancing ability and brilliant creativity of a Fred Astaire or a Gene Kelly, but his pelvic-thrusting, crotch-holding gyrations lacked the dignity of those earlier icons and often turned repellent.
In the end, Jackson will be known mostly as a path-breaking marketing genius. His extravagant stage shows and music videos — replete with fireworks, celebrity cameos, animation, and special effects — finally overshadowed the music itself. And largely for that reason, he captivated millions of concert-goers in an electronic and video age.
Jackson’s quasi-military uniforms, gloved hand, pet chimp, and weird habits added to the Hollywood hype. His legacy includes the similar, though lesser, careers of Britney Spears and Madonna — superstars who put on spectacular, sexually charged performances, with elaborate outfits and props, but who cannot compose, sing, or act in any memorable fashion.
In the end, Michael Jackson taught other superstars that in today’s America, they too could continue to remain famous — for being famous.