Michael Jackson was the most famous human being in the world. There are few people born in the last forty years who don’t know his name. He sold more records and more concert tickets than any other musician, and wherever he went — from multi-million dollar shopping sprees to his highly publicized court appearances — he was mobbed by screaming, adoring fans, some of whom burst into ecstatic tears at the sight of him. Yet as I read over the many obituaries and remembrances of him today, I find the most common description of the man is “lonely.”
He began performing as a child, and first achieved fame in the late 1960s as a member of the Jackson 5 with his brothers Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, and Marlon. A decade later he transitioned to a solo career that would make him the most popular and celebrated entertainer in the world, but right through to the end he never seemed to grow up. In 1988 he bought himself a 2,700 acre ranch in southern California, and named it Neverland. In a globally televised interview in 2003 he innocently admitted to sleeping with underage houseguests, denying all charges of sexual abuse and insisting “It’s the most loving thing in the world to share your bed.” Not the response of a mature man accused of molesting children, it seems to me.
The last twenty years of his very public life seemed more focused on scandals and eccentricities than his music. Rather than hearing new songs, we heard about his plastic surgeries (which he strangely always denied having, despite the obvious evidence to the contrary), his supposed affinities for chimpanzees and oxygen chambers, his reclusiveness, and his reportedly bizarre relationships with women and other people’s children. He eventually married and divorced, twice, and had three kids of his own. In the last few months, beset by financial troubles, Michael seemed ready to finally get back to the music, announcing a 50-date concert series in London which he dubbed “This Is it.” Despite the relatively poor sales and negative reviews that had greeted his recent studio output, the This Is It shows sold out almost immediately; in the wake of Jackson’s death, promoters will be forced to refund tens of millions of dollars worth of ticket revenue.
Despite numerous accusations, Jackson was never convicted of sexually abusing children. Most of his other eccentricities were just that — harmless quirks, oddities that shouldn’t overshadow the man’s many artistic accomplishments. It would be easy to say that he wasn’t that important. He wasn’t a scientist or an explorer, he wasn’t a soldier or a statesman or a civil rights activist. His troubled life off-stage demonstrates that he was a not a man to be idolized. And yet he was possessed of such an immense talent that it would be difficult not to admire him as a performer.
He was the greatest star in the relatively brief history of music video, and author of much of that form’s most entertaining and important work. Like Muddy Waters, Little Richard and Sam Cooke before him, he helped bring the music of African-Americans to a wide multiracial audience, influencing popular music for generations to come. And like Cooke, his name now goes with those of Robert Johnson, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Elvis Presley, John Lennon, and Kurt Cobain on the list of musicians dead before their time.
I can’t think of a better way to remember him than to watch and hear him doing what he did best. Embedded below are some of his most noteworthy videos and performances. We’ve all seen Thriller about a thousand times, I’m sure, so first up are the music videos to three of my personal favorite Michael Jackson songs: “Smooth Criminal”, “Dirty Diana”, and “The Way You Make Me Feel”.Then to finish up, Michael’s legendary performance of “Billie Jean” at Motown 25, and a retrospective set to my favorite Jackson 5 song, “I’ll Be There.”You can read a proper remembrance of Michael Jackson here courtesy of Rolling Stone.
UPDATE (3:44 P.M.): And then there is this, from the invaluable Roger Ebert.