From the Current archives: Remembering Michael Jackson
Published: August 29, 2013
We saw the same phenomenon with Elvis Presley. His death was surely sad for his friends and family, but it saved everyone else from several more years of watching the fat dude, busting out of his white jump suit, muck up their memories of the young hillbilly cat sexing up the Ed Sullivan Show in 1956.
Any attempts to make sense of Jackson’s off-stage life quickly turn into ludicrous conjecture. Did he have two cosmetic procedures (as he insisted), or 13 (as British tabloids would have you believe). Hell if I know. Did he innocently serve boys milk and cookies and tuck them into bed (as he said), or slip them roofies and fondle them (as LAPD officers suspected). Your guess is as good as mine.
This much, however, is clear. As pop-music critic Touré has noted, the late-period Jackson became a kind of King Midas in Reverse. Everything he touched seemed to go horribly wrong. What must have confused him to no end is the fact that everything that the public loved about him at his peak ultimately became an object of ridicule or derision.
Around the time of Thriller, record buyers were charmed by Jackson’s fascination with kids. In fact, part of the reason he managed to move a record-breaking 25 million units at the time was because he tapped into the elementary-school market with a ferocity not seen again until the dark days of Barney and The Wiggles. Jackson had baby boomers covered, because they’d loved him since he’d been the adorable kid that sang “I Want You Back” with his brothers. Teenagers loved him, because “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” captured the pop moment. And little kids related to him because he was non-threatening and child-like (or childish, depending on your perspective).
For chrissakes, no subsequent displays of public weirdness (with the possible exception of his 2002 baby-dangling episode in Germany) could match taking Brooke Shields and Emmanuel Lewis as his two dates to the 1983 Grammys—and no one batted an eye at the time.
His preoccupation with space aliens and freaks also seemed pleasantly eccentric in his heyday, but after a few catnaps in the hyperbaric chamber, it became obvious that, to mangle a famous phrase from Spinal Tap, there’s a fine line between eccentric and pathetic.
Finally, the naïveté that once made him seem so unspoiled by earthly pettiness started to look like drug-addled delusion, when the fortysomething Jackson could not grasp that dangling your baby from a hotel balcony, just to give cheering fans a quick peek, might be a bad judgment call.
Whatever dramas were going on in his own head at the time, the Jackson of 1979’s Off the Wall was pure grace: brimming with drive, ambition, high spirits, energy, and even sexual confidence. At that time, he seemed able to achieve everything with an economy of effort.
By comparison, over the last 20 years, the harder Jackson tried, the more he screwed things up. Obviously scrambling to rehabilitate his public image after a child-molestation civil suit in 1993, he married Lisa Marie Presley, and no one bought it. When he made a dramatic show of kissing her to lead off the 1994 MTV Video Music Awards, most people either recoiled in horror or giggled incessantly.