Most kings are destined to be remembered as kings, not as the person they had been before ascending to power. Even though Michael Jackson earned recognition as the “King of Pop,” the legacy he leaves is that of a boy prince.
Michael Jackson was never comfortable in the adult world. Early on he recognized he would be the happiest in the land of Ferris wheels, cotton candy, docile animals and 24/7 playtime, and he clung to that life. He looked at film of the Jackson 5, circa 1968, noticed the front man was a kid, and wondered whatever happened to that boy’s childhood.
Michael Jackson passed away today. It’s always sad when parents outlast their children. It’s even sadder when the inner child and the adult can’t decide who will go first.
In 1966, when Michael Jackson was almost 8, the Jackson 5 was born. Soon after, these talented young men from Gary, Ind., found themselves playing in seedy nightclubs and dodgy strip joints. That isn’t so bad, in most cases. The musical artist who demands only a dignified path to stardom usually spends a lonely life in the garage or basement. Humble beginnings, or even humiliating ones, come with the territory.
But when you’re a kid, and your father is pushing you ever harder to work and achieve and succeed like Joseph Jackson pushed, the road becomes mean and the spirit turns cold. Michael’s boyhood was Dickensian, even though he grew up in a tight African-American family from an unforgiving industrial region of the Midwest that went on to become rich.
The world knew that Michael Jackson — the 8-year-old with the mini-Afro, the 1,000-watt smile and the footwork of a vaudevillian — as being perennially upbeat. But inside, he had to be wishing that he could skip the next gig and hang out with some kids his age. He had to be lamenting the fact that while the family was going places, he wanted to remain behind a little longer in childhood.
As he grew older, he became a greatly admired creative force. The “Off the Wall” album in 1979 sent his star into a new galaxy. “Thriller,” in 1982, became the biggest-selling album of all time. He had movie projects, he bought the Beatles’ catalog, he did “Captain EO” for Disney theme parks, he co-wrote “We Are the World.” He seemed to have his gloved hand in everything.
Fame made him tabloid fodder
But amid all the success, there was the residual dissatisfaction and longing. The more famous he became, the more he seemed to withdraw from the attention, usually in highly peculiar ways. Much of what was written about him was fiction. Yet because he had a chimpanzee, because he owned Neverland Ranch with all its childlike wonder, because he seemed to alter his physical appearance with each public appearance, he was constant fodder for the media, legitimate and otherwise.
He also made headlines with two marriages, first to Lisa Marie Presley and then to Deborah Rowe, with whom he had two children. The scrutiny intensified.
Like any showman, Jackson drew the spotlight to himself. He was quiet, soft-spoken and fragile, but he knew the business as well as anyone. The freak, the eccentric, the “Wacko Jacko,” might all have been unflattering descriptions, but a lot of the buzz was the result of his own orchestration. He knew that when Michael Jackson set one foot onto any stage, the klieg lights would illuminate it. And when he could work it to his advantage, he did just that.
The struggle between the naïve child and the savvy grown man turned Michael Jackson into a riddle of which the press and the public never grew tired.
The interest was never greater than during Jackson’s trial on sexual molestation charges near Santa Barbara, Calif., in 2003. He was eventually acquitted, but it revealed the most inappropriate aspects of Jackson’s desire to be among children. Whether you were a cynic who felt he was a pedophile who escaped justice, or whether you were a supporter who believed he was a misunderstood genius who only wanted to help people, he certainly seemed to invite trouble, whether through naivete or lasciviousness or a strange brew of both.
After that, there were various Michael Jackson reports. He was living in Bahrain. He was living in Nevada. He was preparing a major tour. He was pondering an extended engagement in Vegas. He lost Neverland Ranch. He made a deal to save it.
What usually was missing from any Michael Jackson report in the past 25 years or so was the music. There was a time when soul and rhythm and blues ruled, when Motown was a dominant force in the record business, when acts such as Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross and the Temptations and the Four Tops and Marvin Gaye were as big in their world as the Beatles and Elvis Presley were in theirs.
They didn’t get that way through subterfuge, gimmicks or spin. They crafted radio-friendly songs that were vibrant and passionate and original, and they made an impact on the music business that is still felt today in newer generations of artists.
The Jacksons were right in the middle of all that. They produced hits such as “I’ll Be There,” “I Want You Back,” “ABC” and “Never Can Say Goodbye” that burned up the charts and remain pop classics. Then Michael went solo and combined songwriting prowess with performance legerdemain to become one of the most astonishing acts ever. Songs such as “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” “Rock With You,” “Billie Jean,” “Beat It” and “Thriller,” to name a few, have endured — and will endure.
Perhaps those songs will make future generations forget about the unusual and the unfortunate involving a modern-day prince with king-sized accomplishments and a child’s imagination.