Michael Jackson died only yesterday, but I feel like I’ve been watching him dissolve since 1983. That, as history buffs recall, is the year Jackson took over the world, starting with America, when his high-voltage performance on the Motown 25 TV special led to extraordinary excitement for his second solo album, Thriller (which landed with an astounding one-two punch of singles—“Billie Jean” and “Beat It,” two stone classics accompanied by awe-inspiring-at-the-time videos—both of which remained in high rotation throughout the year on hot new MTV), with the synthesis of brilliant songcraft, thrilling visuals, and a one-of-a-kind American talent firing on all cylinders with the greatest of ease adding up to an unforgettable year and a half that was fully, literally dominated by Jackson. It’s hard to believe if you weren’t there, but punks loved Thriller, disco fags loved Thriller, music critics loved Thriller, your older sister loved Thriller, your younger brother loved Thriller, your parents loved Thriller, your teachers loved Thriller. It was a ubiquitous and truly unifying work of art, and its unprecedented success broke Michael Jackson’s brain.
This break would start to show itself as Jackson prepped his follow-up to Thriller, whose nine tracks had produced seven top-10 singles and sold nearly 30 million copies in the U.S. alone. The majority of us who experienced the perfect storm of Thriller understood we were seeing something that hadn’t happened before and was unlikely to happen again—a most extravagant realization of the American dream, a local-boy-makes-good story for the whole country and a once-in-a-lifetime experience for all involved. The one person who didn’t see it that way was Jackson, who saw Thriller’s success as nothing but a challenge. His next record, he repeatedly predicted to the press during the creation and release of 1987’s Bad, would sell 100 million copies.
As it turned out, Bad sold “only” eight million copies and spawned a paltry five number-one singles in the U.S. Jackson did not take it well. Never again would audiences experience the joyous, loose, seemingly effortless Michael Jackson they’d loved since he was a child, spinning what in lesser hands might’ve been a novelty kiddie-knockoff of James Brown into something deep and true. Though Jackson would remain uncommonly gifted, audiences would never see him truly enjoying his gifts again.
Crowning himself the King of Pop and contractually obligating others to follow suit, Jackson traded in his career as a working artist for a career as an international superstar on a never-ending victory lap. He didn’t so much rest on his laurels as feast on them: Seemingly every image I saw of Jackson had him accepting a lifetime achievement award, or an international humanitarian honor, or whatever else would facilitate a photo shoot with a large group of young children. He continued to record and tour, with a brilliant but oddly joyless perfectionism that was increasingly underscored with a sense of demagoguery: videos featured as much footage of weeping fans as of the artist plying his trade, and with the release of 1995’s greatest-hits HIStory, Jackson became a full-time self-mythologizer, sending a several-stories-high statue of himself floating down the Thames to announce the rerelease of work he’d made more than 10 years earlier.
Then came the troubles: the criminal investigations, the dangled babies, the acquittal. “It’s like he’s been dying for years,” said a friend discussing Jackson. I get her point, but NOW HE’S DEAD and any latent dreams of Jackson executing some miraculous third-act comeback (in my dreams, this always involved Rick Rubin, à la Johnny Cash) die with him. The period has been placed at the end of the sentence. His art will not fight back and redeem him.
It’s enough to make you cry.