'The King of Pop': 50 and Not-So-Fabulous

No matter how many times you waved your hands in front of his face, 6-year-old David remained a model of concentration.

His legs dangling off the edge of a couch, David’s hazel eyes widened as they locked on the TV in front of him. He didn’t even blink as the signature gyrations of Michael Jackson, as captured on DVD footage of his 1992 concert in Bucharest from the Dangerous Tour, flashed across the screen.

As the “King of Pop” eased into a medley of his classic song “Beat It,” Pauline, a 40-something-year-old recreational therapist in the New York City hospice where David resides, stopped and watched. A lifelong Jackson fan, she smiled as “The Gloved One” whipped adoring German fans into a frenzy.

“I’ve always loved Michael Jackson, despite all the craziness, no matter what he was accused of,” she said. “It’s just too bad what’s happened with him.”

Behold a portion of Michael’s public. One wasn’t even born when child molestation accusations first surfaced against “The King of Pop” in the mid 1990s. The other has seen all of Jackson’s rise and fall – from media darling as the child prodigy lead singer of The Jackson 5 to moonwalking phenomenon to today's semi-reviled, bizarre musical genius.

Jackson has never been convicted of any criminal wrongdoing – a jury acquitted him at a sensational trial in 2005. But he took no victory in that acquittal, living as a semi-recluse, first in Bahrain and then reportedly in Las Vegas in the three years since. Jackson has never truly recovered from both the trial and more than a decade of bad press – the type of bad press than drains the life out of careers and legacies. Sadly, that’s his tragedy as he approaches his 50th birthday on Friday.

“Part me feels sad when I think about Michael Jackson. It’s unfortunate that his antics have overwhelmed his music,” said Rashod Ollison, music critic for the Baltimore Sun. “It’s a shame, really. … Those who saw him first in The Jackson 5 or [moonwalking for the first time] at the Motown 25 special and so on may be more likely to be forgiving of what he’s become because they remember who he once was.”

Jackson is more than the artist behind the greatest-selling album of all time in Thriller. The child molestation scandals and numerous sensational tabloid headlines can never erase the fact that he is true legend in the music industry and one of pop’s greatest icons. In some ways, being a two-time inductee in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (as both a singles artist and member of The Jackson 5) understates his influence.

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Search your memory bank – do you remember the first time you saw the small 11-year-old boy with showmanship and charisma that far-exceeded his older brothers and wowed Ed Sullivan? Do you remember being glued to the TV – and the buzz the next day – after watching Jackson moonwalk across the stage at Motown’s 25th anniversary special? Do you remember the Thriller jackets, single white gloves, high-water pants and dripping Jheri Curls that everyone seemed to wear when “Michael-mania” was at its peak? Thriller – and Jackson himself – was the ultimate crossover success story.

“Michael was an incredible inspiration in the black urban community who crossed over big-time. No one else has ever quite matched it,” Ollison said. “He had fans from ages 8 to 88. Everyone knew who he was.”

So how did it all go wrong for Jackson and why? Arguably, he’s a psychiatrist’s dream. Was Thriller the best and worst thing that ever could have happened to him? It made him a legend but perhaps haunted him – he’s arguably been obsessed with replicating or perhaps surpassing a once-in-a-lifetime achievement. Or maybe years of living the public eye and never really having a normal childhood affected him as much as he has suggested.

“When I think about Michael, here’s a guy who’s been a public figure, who’s been performing basically all his life. He never really stood that much of a chance,” said Rachel Weingarten, president of GTK marketing Group. “When I think about his children, you wonder what kind of chance at normalcy they will have. I really don’t give them much of a chance, either.”

For a while, the Jackson’s behavior – Bubbles the Chimp, living in a carnival-like estate he called Neverland, diminutive actor Emmanuel Lewis always on his shoulders, the numerous plastic surgeries that made his unrecognizable to his former self, and the list goes on and on – were excused as the antics of an eccentric genius. But when child molestation allegations first surfaced, his behavior took on an entirely new meaning. From then on, Jackson was viewed with suspicion, his actions inexcusable. Despite never being convicted in a court of law, “The King of Pop” was condemned to a life sentence of shame.

“Once you’re accused of something like that, it’s pretty much over,” said Robert Thompson, professor of media and culture at Syracuse University. “Madonna, another pop artist who recently turned 50, has known her share of scandals, but she’s never been involved in the type of scandal that kills careers. She’s had scandals that make careers.”

"There is no question that Michael Jackson ranks in the same category as Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Elvis Presley as one of the greatest and most iconic acts in the history of American popular music,” Thompson continued. “There is also no question, however, that he [also] ranks among the most spectacular cases of the modern ‘freak show.’”

But Jackson's antics and penchant for scandal also eventually grew tiresome. He will always have his diehard fans but it's difficult to separate the iconic artist from the "freak show." Jackson was partly a victim of media infatuation with the sensational. But the "King" also bears a lot of the blame for his own troubles. A hyperbaric chamber? Naming one of your children "Blanket? As a celebrity who has been in the public eye his entire life, he should have known how the media works and what pushes buttons.

"It's almost as if he courts the attention and that he enjoys it," said Rachel Weingarten. "Just when you think he's quietly fading away, he does something eccentric and he's back in the headline. ... He doesn't give the public a chance to forget."

With all his accomplishments, Jackson should be enjoying the fruit of his labor and basking in the modern-day pop kingdom he helped build. Just as James Brown set the stage for him, Jackson laid the groundwork for the Justin Timberlakes, Chris Browns and Neos of this world.

Instead, Neverland is closed. Jackson hasn't produced significant new music in years. And there always seem to be rumors about his finances, alleged feuds with his family and a comeback album. That’s hardly a kingdom befitting a King – and this is the only side of Michael Jackson that growing number of young music fans have ever known. They’ve never known the brown and beautiful phenom who was once loved from coast-to-coast; they’ve grown up watching only the pasty-skinned “Wacko.”

But maybe there’s still hope. At the pediatric hospice in New York City, Pauline watched young David as he suddenly stirred from the couch, eyes still glued on the TV and Jackson's concert. As Jackson started to sing “Billie Jean,” the 6-year-old struck a classic “King of Pop” dance pose. David started to dance and Pauline's grin began to stretch from ear-to-ear.

However, a bemused horror suddenly overcame Pauline . She gasped then nervously chuckled as David grabbed his crotch and began to thrust his pelvis – just like Michael.

TV time abruptly ended at that point. There will be other times for David. Although he was born too late to see "The King of Pop" in his prime, he's watching his every move.