Michael Jackson started calling himself the King of Pop around 1991, shortly before his monarchy was symbolically deposed. On Jan. 11, 1992, Jackson’s Dangerous album was knocked from the top spot in the Billboard 200 by Nirvana’s Nevermind, marking the end of Jackson’s reign and bringing down the curtain on the era of pop consensus he represented. Today, the popular-music landscape has crumbled into bits and bytes, splintered into hundreds of market niches, subgenres, and microgenres. Though the occasional huge hit collapses the distance between audiences, we will never again experience a moment like Jackson’s 1980s apotheosis, when Thriller seemed to shrink the world. Weeping for Michael, we are also mourning the musical monoculture—the passing of a time when we could imagine that the whole country, the whole planet, was listening to the same song.
Thriller (1982) was Jackson’s masterpiece; it was also his curse. It won him unprecedented adoration: No one—not Frank Sinatra, not Elvis Presley, not the Beatles—commanded as large a global audience. But it was also a commercial and artistic milestone that Jackson spent the rest of his life trying in vain to repeat.
His albums remained compelling. Bad (1987) was a masterpiece in its own right, and Dangerous (1991), HIStory (1995), and Invincible (2001) were mesmerizing in spots. Increasingly, though, Jackson’s music was warped by megalomania: huge production budgets, Wagnerian ballads, songs that swung wildly between self-pity and grandiosity. “Heal the World,” he sang, but his own face, rent by plastic surgery, revealed the sickness within. At the 1995 Brit Awards (the U.K. equivalent of the Grammys), Jackson sang “Earth Song” surrounded by a worshipful children’s choir and an actor dressed as a rabbi, whom Jackson “blessed.” The performance was interrupted by the arrival on stage of Jarvis Cocker, the lead singer of the Britpop band Pulp, who shook his butt at the audience while Jackson rose toward the rafters on a hydraulic lift. (“My actions were a form of protest at the way Michael Jackson sees himself as some kind of Christlike figure with the power of healing,” Cocker said.)
The bombast was embarrassing as spectacle and also a catastrophic musical miscalculation. Beneath their sumptuous production, Jackson’s best songs were models of small-bore rigor. Listening to “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” “Billie Jean,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Something,” and “The Way You Make Me Feel,” you are reminded that the greatest pop star of his generation was also a songwriter nonpareil. The grandeur of his best records was an old-fashioned architectural kind: based in the symmetries of classical pop songcraft that Jackson absorbed while serving his apprenticeship in the Motown hit factory. Let’s not forget that the Jackson 5’s debut single, recorded when Michael was just 11, is the greatest bubblegum pop record of all time.
For those of us who grew up during Jackson’s heyday, it’s astonishing to realize how long it has been since he ruled the Billboard charts. Jackson had just two Top 40 hits in the 2000s. His last No. 1 single, “You Are Not Alone,” was 14 years ago. An entire pop generation has come of age without Jackson—but not without Jackson-ism. His influence is unmistakable in the music of today’s biggest acts, from the unabashed would-be Michaels Justin Timberlake and Usher, to pop divas like Beyoncé and Rihanna, whose singing takes in the speedy cadences of Jackson hits like “Smooth Criminal” and whose performances aim for Jackson-esque high-showbiz dazzle. Historians will look back on the last quarter-century as the period in which R&B became the defining American music, and this is Jackson’s achievement more than anyone’s. Today’s Top 40 operates on the template set by Jackson in the 1980s, when he dismantled radio and MTV’s de facto racial segregation.
If there is a silver lining to Jackson’s untimely death, at age 50, it’s how we’ve been snapped out of our fixation on Jackson’s lurid life to concentrate again on his art. Watching his indelible performance on the 1983 Motown 25 television special, you recall that this fixture of 21st-century tabloid culture was, as an entertainer, a throwback. He was a song-and-dance man who strove, in every performance, to bowl over audiences with aggressive displays of talent and charisma: a show-off of the early 20th-century vaudevillian model.
Yet as tempting as it is to separate “Wacko Jacko” from Michael Jackson, it can’t be done. Jackson was a confessional artist; he always started with the man in the mirror. Though he aimed bigger and broader than any pop star before or since—he wanted every single person in the world to buy his records—he never compromised. His music is the strangest and darkest ever to achieve blockbuster success; by comparison, Sinatra, Elvis, the Beatles, and Madonna are positively milquetoast. Consider some song titles: “Bad,” “Dangerous,” “Leave Me Alone,” “Blood on the Dance Floor,” “Scream,” “In the Closet,” “Cry,” “The Lost Children,” “Threatened.” Repulsion, sexual anxiety, implacable sadness, violence, terror, celebrity stalking—these were his great themes. When you dance to “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” this weekend, don’t forget to listen to the lyrics: “It’s too high to get over/ Too low to get under/ You’re stuck in the middle/ And the pain is thunder/ You’re a vegetable/ Still they hate you …/ You’re just a buffet/ They eat off of you.” Whether or not Jackson was in fact “wacko,” his music surely is—it is joyfully, painfully, transcendently nuts. “C’mon and groove,” he sang 30 years ago in “Off the Wall,” “Let the madness in the music get to you.”
Slate V: Moonwalk: Michael Jackson’s YouTube Legacy