Pop's undisputed "King" is dead, but Michael Jackson will live long after we’re gone. But will Jackson be remembered primarily as the revolutionary "King of Pop" or the scandal-ridden "Wacko Jacko"?
For now, Jackson's legacy could be divided along generational lines. Both baby boomers and members of "Generation-X" have seen the good, bad and very ugly of Jackson. They remember when he was a brown and beautiful phenom, loved from coast-to-coast.
If you’re a baby boomer, odds are you’ve seen Jackson’s entire rise and fall – from his beginning as the 11-year-old prodigy who wowed Ed Sullivan as the lead singer of The Jackson 5 to his ascent to pop legend to his fall with molestation allegations and his surprising, untimely demise last Thursday at age 50. If you are child of the 1970s, your first real impression of Jackson may have come either when he snipped his Jackson 5 apron strings in Off the Wall or when he moonwalked across the stage at Motown’s 25th anniversary special.
However, if you were born in the 1990s or after, you’ve only known the pasty-skinned “Wacko.” You’ve seen groundbreaking videos and footage of his classic performances, but that may be akin to watching black-and-white films of Charlie Chaplin – you can’t really relate to them. Jackson’s controversies – the plastic surgery-induced metamorphosis, the molestation allegations, the criminal trial, the acquittal, and the constant tabloid rumors – have unfolded live before your very eyes. You know Jackson’s a pioneer, but separating the “King of Pop” from the media court jester can be extremely difficult. Nonetheless, Jackson’s impact on the music industry and his connection with diehard fans are no laughing matter.
“Well, it is hard to overestimate it. This is a figure who was an important artist when he was barely teenager,” Rolling Stone contributing editor Anthony DeCurtis said on “On the Record with Greta Van Susteren.” “His significance and influence and impact only increased as he got older. Certainly, through Thriller in the mid-1980's, there was no artist in the world as big as Michael Jackson.”
There are almost not enough words to describe Jackson’s influence. With at least 68 million (and counting) copies of Thriller sold worldwide, he is the artist behind the greatest-selling album of all time. He won 13 Grammy awards and had 13 number one singles as a solo artist, has sold an estimated at least 750 million albums in his career and is a two-time inductee in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (as both a singles artist and member of The Jackson 5).
Still, that brief list of accolades understates Jackson’s impact. His videos for "Billie Jean" and especially "Thriller" put MTV on the map and set the standard by which music videos are made. His dance style and music have inspired countless artists. Just as James Brown set the stage for him, Jackson laid the groundwork for several of today’s chart-toppers. Without the “King of Pop,” we arguably would not have the Justin Timberlakes, Ushers, Chris Browns, Alicia Keys, R. Kellys and Neos of the world.
“Nobody can deny that he was an absolute musical genius. But he was almost like two people,” said Alicia Quarles, entertainment editor for the Associated Press.
While Jackson the artist was untouchable, the man himself was an enigma. He exuded the confidence of a grown man onstage but was shy and childlike behind the scenes. He had an infatuation with Peter Pan and longed for a childhood he never really had – and that made him misunderstood. Child molestation suspicions hung over his head for most of the last 16 years of his life. A $20 million settlement with a boy who first accused him in 1993 only raised more eyebrows; an acquittal at his criminal trial in 2005 brought vindication in court, but no real peace.
“My interaction with him was during this, you know, the worst period of his life, during this trial,” said Joe Tacopina, one of Jackson’s former attorneys. “And he was withdrawn, and at times seemed totally out of it during the trial. … I think the fact that he was being accused and put through the trial devastated him and broke his spirit, and I believe that was the beginning of the end.”
After his acquittal, Jackson left Neverland and lived as a semi-recluse, first in Bahrain, then reportedly in Las Vegas before renting a home in Los Angeles. At the time of his death, he was working on a comeback in a series of concerts that were set to take place in London starting July 13. Jackson had said he wanted to put on his “final” shows so that his three young children would have a chance to see their father perform. But perhaps the “King of Pop” was also seeking redemption for years of scandal.
“Part me feels sad when I think about Michael Jackson. It’s unfortunate that his antics have overwhelmed his music,” Rashod Ollison, music critic for the Baltimore Sun, has said. “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.”
And perhaps those memories are the reason Jackson’s fans were hoping that his comeback would succeed – and why it’s so difficult to believe he is gone. He provided so many unforgettable moments that were both thrilling and tragic. Do you remember seeing Jackson’s moonwalk at Motown 25? The Thriller jackets, single white gloves, high-water pants and dripping Jeri Curls that everyone seemed to wear at “Michael-mania's” peak? What about his mug shot? Or the day he showed up for trial, looking frail, in his pajamas?
Jackson’s death may become one of those “Do you remember where you were when …” moments. But he remains tabloid fodder.
The final autopsy results are weeks away. There is much speculation about Jackson’s health, alleged drug use and an ongoing investigation on the circumstances of his passing. He was reportedly hundreds of millions of dollars in debt when he died. And who will get custody of his children? Sadly, even in death, Jackson circus rolls on.
Jackson and his fans may only find true solace in his artistic legacy. On Friday, the day after his death, Jackson’s albums accounted for 15 of the top-selling CDs on Amazon.com; nine of Amazon’s 10 best-selling DVDs were his videos. On iTunes, 13 of the top-selling albums belonged to Jackson. The fallen “King” had returned to his throne.
“In death, he did make a comeback,” said Quarles. “Days ago, he was a punching bag, and he was a punch line for a lot of jokes. And now, unfortunately in death, he has made the ultimate comeback.”
That comeback is Jackson’s redemption. But the headlines since his death prove he may never be able to truly escape the dark side of his life. “The King” and the “Wacko” will always be there, locked in a moonwalk dance-off, for generations to come.