Tragic ‘King of Pop’

Posted June 26, 2009, at 10:21 p.m.

Undeniable musical talent, adoring fans in every corner of the world and millions of dollars could not save Michael Jackson from an early death. His tragic end Thursday pulled back the curtain even further on a troubled life that ranged from public triumph to public humiliation.

Trying to understand Michael Jackson is like trying to use a diamond as a shaving mirror — so many facets, lots of shine and sparkle, but ultimately no clear image.

If you were not a fan of his music, you knew Mr. Jackson as the butt of late night talk show jokes and saw his ever-changing face on magazines in grocery store check-out lines. You read about his marriage to Elvis Presley’s daughter, Lisa Marie. It was as if he used the relationship to court comparisons with the king of rock ’n’ roll. Mr. Jackson used a public relations firm to anoint himself the King of Pop and insisted music writers use that title. They did.

And you also read allegations of Mr. Jackson’s sexual abuse of children and his odd behavior with his own children. His Neverland Ranch and more-creepy-than-charming childlike behavior further confused the public, eliciting more jokes and outrage.

But in the beginning, there was the music. Unlike the lottery of American Idol, Mr. Jackson rose to fame on talent. In the early 1970s, before puberty changed his voice, he belted out undeniably catchy and satisfying pop tunes. We saw him shimmy across the floor, commanding the camera’s attention, as his older brothers, who could actually play instruments, faded in the background.

After his voice changed, Mr. Jackson changed as well, dumping the shallow pop for a funkier, more urban sound. He didn’t reach the street cred of early rap, but in many ways, his collaborations with legendary producer Quincy Jones presaged the rise of the hook-oriented hip-hop of today. After the unparalleled success of 1983’s “Thriller,” a Rolling Stone magazine reporter spent time with Mr. Jackson before the release of the follow-up record. Around the house, the reporter noted, were post-it notes with “100 million” written on them, the sales goal he had set. The record fell way short.

Watching Mr. Jackson in his carefully crafted public appearances made us all psychologists. His childhood, denied by an exploitative and abusive father, Mr. Jackson said, led him to recapture it in his 30s and 40s. In his 20s, he was a handsome African-American man, but his father’s frequent teasing about his broad nose led him to undertake radical plastic surgery and a skin bleaching procedure that turned him into an androgynous-like man of undetermined ethnicity.

The “Thriller” video begins with a dialogue between Mr. Jackson and a girlfriend in which he confesses, “I’m not like other guys.” He wasn’t the werewolf of the video, but he sure did have secrets.

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