Friday, June 26, 2009

Farewell to the King of PoP - Michael Jackson

And so the life of Michael Jackson came to an end Thursday, June 25, 2009

Michael Jackson was a phenomenal talent and has been around since I first started listening to pop music. To children of the 80s, Thriller was to pop music discovery what Charlotte's Web was to kiddie lit or Raiders of the Lost Ark was to Adventure flicks. I was ten years old in 1982, when Thriller was released, and it was the greatest thing we kids had ever heard in our lives.

Thriller became the bestselling album of all time and an incredible and unprecedented seven of its nine tracks became top ten singles. The funk pop record bore smatterings of hard rock with a guitar solo by Eddie Van Halen. It guested Paul McCartney on a duet, and Vincent Price offered his spooky spoken word for the title track. The Thriller mini movie video broke ground and is often called the best music video of all time. The iconic zombie dance lives on to this day, performed all over the globe, not least impressively by these Filipino inmates. The song styles ran a gamut from the rather menacing Wanna Be Starting Something? to the syrupy ballads, The Lady in My Life and Human Nature.

Of course, Thriller wasn't Jackson's first album. It was preceded by the almost equally stellar disco funk of Off the Wall in 1979. Before that he was the star child, recording many a classic track with the Jackson Five. There were other hits too, like Ben, the theme song for a film of the same name about a boy who befriends the leader of a gang of homicidal rats. The song was nominated for an Oscar.

But Thriller was his greatest work. It sold 40 million copies. At the time of its release, fledgling music television stations, MTV and MuchMusic, were still in relative infancy and, though they had never played many black artists in the past, they played Michael Jackson videos "to death" as puts it. Jackson, with his flamboyant fashion sense and signature dance stylings did more – by virtue of his mindblowing talent - to integrate black music into the mainstream than anyone had before. Kids my age didn't know this at the time, though, since we weren't aware of musical politics and were content to learn how to moonwalk and show up at school wearing just one glove (I can still moonwalk…and think perhaps a fitting tribute would be for everyone to do so on the anniversary of his death next year).

Jackson never quite managed to recapture the success of Thriller. What are the chances of topping the greatest selling album of all time? There was always quite a wait between albums. In 1987, Jackson released Bad. And while the tour became the highest grossing of all time and the album was the first to produce five number one hits, it sold only 8 million copies.

Meanwhile, Jackson's bizarre behaviour – his friendship with pet chimp Bubbles, his Neverland Ranch and penchant for the company of children, his reclusive habits, and the whitening of his skin, later said to be a case of vitiligo – was fuelling fires of speculation and vitriol. The British tabloid press started calling him "Wacko Jacko."

Dismayed by the moniker, for obvious reasons, Michael was calling himself the "King of Pop" by the time he released Dangerous in 1991. Dangerous debuted at number one but the musical landscape was shifting and soon Nirvana's Nevermind knocked it out of place.

From there, it was a slow, strange downslide for Michael. Amid allegations of child molestation in both 1993 and 2004 (dropped and dismissed, respectively), two failed marriages – one to Elvis Presley's daughter Lisa Marie, the other to nurse Debbie Rowe who bore him two children – Jackson's reputation suffered further. His appearance became increasingly bizarre through cosmetic surgery. I think many of us were always waiting for him to turn around and do something amazing, praying he'd pull himself out of the funk (the wrong kind). And we were increasingly disappointed when he repeatedly failed to do so. It was ten years between Dangerous and 2001's Invincible, which only proved that he was not.

Michael suffered severe financial trouble, had a very public fallout with Tommy Mottola of Sony Music and lost his Neverland Ranch. There was more. But we were all there. We all know what happened. Michael Jackson had become a very tragic figure.

Recently Michael announced a comeback. Looking frail, he gave a press conference, promising ten shows at London's O2 Arena. Ten later became 50.

And many of us were sceptical. We knew he wasn't going to perform those shows. There was no way. He was too sickly looking. Something was fishy from the start. I blogged my predictions and was surprised by the voracity of the insults that popped up in the comments section - directed at me - from people rushing to his defence.

Five shows were later cancelled and moved to the end of the run. He was reportedly diagnosed with skin cancer. And now he's dead. I know this sounds like a crazy conspiracy theory in the making but I have to say I wonder whether Michael was coerced into these concerts, with someone else pulling the strings. I will be very surprised if any of the 750,000 people who bought tickets to those shows get their money back. And I'm no financial expert but I'm guessing there's quite a windfall of cash there. So, what I'm saying is, I suspect there's more to this story, even if we will never know what it is. Or maybe I'm crazy.

Meanhwhile, I just heard the Reverend Al Sharpton on television suggesting Michael died of a broken heart. Fitting, if overly poetic. Life was not kind to Michael.

But how about that Thriller, eh? Good night King of Pop. You were certainly off the wall.

Story by: Elizabeth Bromstein

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