Blood on the Dance Floor: Michael Jackson, 1958 – 2009, by Phil Nugent.

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To be honest, my first reaction to the news of Michael Jackson’s death was a feeling of relief. Like a lot of people, I spent part of my life sort of feeling as if I’d grown up with Michael Jackson, and it was tiring to watch him spiral downward, from tabloid mess to tabloid mess, amid reports that he was on, or past, the verge of utter financial ruin. I didn’t realize how soothing it would be to get word that I’d never hear about another of his catastrophes. I long ago lost any interest in him as an entertainer, and I thought I’d lost any stake I ever had in him as a person. But as it happens, my first sense of who Michael Jackson was came not through his music as a solo act or with the Jackson 5, but through the old cartoon The Jackson 5ive, and maybe you never get over being a little in awe of someone who, as a kid, achieved the ultimate dream of many of us at that age: to become a cartoon.

I missed out on the Jackson 5’s peak, but I remember how exciting it was when he grew to full, independent stature as a performer with his best album, the disco-era triumph Off the Wall. The follow-up album, Thriller, lacked Off the Wall‘s freshness and nonstop propulsion, but I remember getting it for my birthday about a week after it came out and thinking it was okay: it led off with a fierce dance track, had one great song ("Billie Jean"), a couple of pretty good songs, a cringe-worthy duet with Paul McCartney, a blaring rock song with Eddie Van Halen, a very long song that I never felt the urge to listen to again voluntarily but felt kindly towards in theory because it was nice to hear Vincent Price’s voice on the radio, and some filler. But the album rode the wave of Jackson’s appearance on the TV special Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever, where he gave one of those once-in-a-lifetime displays of sheer, uncontainable talent that automatically elevates a celebrity’s profile to the level of a star, and cut through the miasma of ’80s culture like a switchblade.

I’ve heard a number of people dismiss the scandals and assorted stunners that overtook Jackson’s career with the idea that we should think only of "the talent." That’s a reasonable-enough sentiment, but it overlooks that Jackson’s zenith of popularity in 1983 and 1984 couldn’t all be attributed to his talent, either. A disciple of both Fred Astaire and Jackie Wilson, coming into his own at the moment when hip-hop culture was beginning to take shape, Jackson bridged generations of pop. And the scale of his success made people want to see him as more than a mere entertainer, as being symbolic of something. For a lot of people, including liberal rock critics looking for a sign of hope in the Reagan era, that something was the news that a black man was the most popular star in the world. But others — including the Reagans themselves, who welcomed him to the White House — must have found his old-school show-business chops and all-embracing niceness very reassuring.

Jackson was never under any obligation to make political statements or pick sides, but at some point, his stardom became a reflection of what was ugliest about the ’80s. He was the greatest of all time and the biggest star in the world because he moved the most units. At the same time, he was, like Reagan, celebrated because of the supposedly magical quality of his seeming… not all there. The inevitable Time magazine cover story reads very strangely today, because it finds the magazine and various top celebrities and music-biz honchos falling over themselves to exalt Jackson for the same kind of Boo Radleyisms that, after declining sales and a few plastic-surgery disasters, rendered Jackson a punch line and kryptonite to endorsement-deal agents. "I wish we could all spend some time in his world," it quotes Steven Spielberg as saying of the "nice place Michael comes from," after mentioning that "During a break in a photo session… Spielberg saw Jackson chatting and swapping gestures with E.T."

For people who miss that level of hype, Jackson’s death marks a chance to strain for it again; this week, I turned on the TV just in time to hear Michael Eric Dyson tell a poleaxed Keith Olbermann that "you have to go back to Mozart" to find a comparable example of a "child prodigy" so thoroughly fulfilling his promise as an adult. Actually, you don’t even have to reach beyond the Motown roster, since Stevie Wonder first signed with Berry Gordy when he was eleven — the same age as Michael when the Jackson 5 had their first hit — and went on to build up a body of work that surely compares favorably with Michael’s. In trying to understand Jackson, remember that unlike both Mozart and Stevie, becoming a "child prodigy" wasn’t his idea; he had his childhood shanghaied by his father’s plan to turn his offspring into a five-headed singing cash cow. He never got a vote. Given how hard he worked — or to be more precise, how hard he was worked — from an early age, it’s no wonder that he turned into a master performer, except that the same alchemy didn’t work with his brothers. It’s no wonder that, after the 1984 "Victory Tour" that he was bullied into doing with them, he spent the last twenty-five years of his life reportedly having next to nothing to do with his family, except for his sister Janet, the only one of them in his league in terms of talent or popular success. Say what you like about blood being thicker than water, but talent has a way of seeking out its own level.

Everybody who cares has his own theory about when Jackson went off the rails, most of them pinpointing a moment when the scale of his weirdness definitively outstripped his ability to dazzle you with his talent. But I think he bottomed out at the exact moment he was topping out: partly because the ugly, chaotic management of the Victory Tour, with its grab-what-you-can-while-he’s-hot calculations, permanently damaged his image as someone who genuinely loved his fans, and partly because it left him with a benchmark in sales and cultural dominance that he could never repeat. His inability to repeat it seems to have done as much to drive him crazy as his fixation on buying a super-sized version of the childhood of which he’d been robbed.

Were the later albums any good? I’m sure they have their moments. But as early as Bad, I found myself unable to judge them independently of the three-ring circus that now passed for his life, and not just because the life was distracting, but because he seemed to have trouble keeping them straight himself. It was Jackson’s decision, for whatever reason, to slip to the tabloids that he was trying to buy the bones of the Elephant Man and that he slept in a hyperbaric chamber, even staging a photo of himself lying in state. Then he not only recorded a song called "Leave Me Alone" but commissioned a video for it that attacked the tabloids for running the stories he’d given them, complete with the ultimate heartbreaking image of poor Bubbles the Chimp in chains. This was half a dozen years before the first official charges of child molestation — never mind that promotional film showing a crowd of kids experiencing mass religious hysteria at the unveiling of a mile-high statue of Michael with a helicopter flying between its legs. But it was already clear that the delicate man-child’s mind was not just strange but wallowing in a dark, creepy place where unjustified self-pity and rampaging megalomania were intertwined.

Time will sort all this out, of course; in a few years, maybe I’ll be able to give an unbiased listen to Invincible, his last album. That’s the one best remembered for the weird scene where Michael — confused and hurt that he had failed, yet again, to rack up numbers remotely comparable to those of Thriller — decided the best way to save face was to publicly describe the head of his record company as "a devil" and accuse him of heading a racist conspiracy to prevent Michael from making money for Sony Music. Maybe the many, many people who are out in force mourning him this week can still hear his music just fine, though I suspect that the vast majority of them are just driven to pay testament to the celebrity of a man who was always ready to tell you himself that he was the biggest star of his age. That would explain why the footage you always see of people reaching out to him, their faces wet with tears, as if he were a five-foot-ten-inch taco with the image of Jesus on it, don’t look much like they’re enjoying a musical performance — just as Jackson, for most of the last fifteen years of his career, minimum, really didn’t look as if he were enjoying performing. At least Off the Wall, "Billie Jean," and the best stuff he did with his brothers are assured a place on the permanent shelf. In the meantime, his life and career have already inspired at least one important book, Margo Jefferson’s slim, chewy On Michael Jackson. Be sure to read it if you haven’t already. I’m guessing that Michael never did, which is a great pity.