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From the Current archives: Remembering Michael Jackson

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When, with the song “They Don’t Care About Us,” he tried to win sympathy for his public humiliation, he unwittingly offended Jewish-Americans with the oddball slur: “Jew me/sue me/everybody do me/kick me/kike me/don’t you black or white me.”

When he tried to launch a comeback with a splashy 2001 concert extravaganza in New York, he was swiftly overshadowed by the 9/11 attacks. When he responded to that tragedy by organizing a multi-artist 9/11 charity record, he took heat for collaborating with a porn producer. When he sought to set the record straight about his private life, British journalist Martin Bashir made him look weirder than anyone imagined.

So when did things start to go wrong? There are several reasonable choices: the 1984 Pepsi commercial, during which he not only suffered a burn to the scalp that started him on the road to painkiller dependence (and apparently intensified his interest in plastic surgery), but inexplicably took the chorus of his greatest track, “Billie Jean,” and turned it into: “We’re the Pepsi Generation”; 1985’s “We Are the World,” in which his ego consumed all the suffering people of the world, reducing them to anonymous benefactors of his wondrous generosity; and 1993’s child-molestation case, which marred his reputation forever, and turned him into the bitter, self-pitying martyr he’d long threatened to become.

I would cast my vote, however, for one of Jackson’s most beloved, iconic moments: his John Landis-directed “Thriller” video. This inane, horror-movie pastiche marked the moment when Jackson succumbed to the hype, became convinced of his own genius, and decided that he needed to prove it by topping himself with longer, more elaborate productions. The man who viewed himself as the King of Pop did not understand that grandiosity and good pop are natural enemies. From this point on, we suffered through grating indulgences like the repetitive a cappella chanting at the end of the “Bad” video, or the endless, crotch-grabbing, windshield-shattering coda of the “Black or White” clip. For a while, we cringed our way through it, and convinced ourselves that such drivel was the price you had to pay for being a Jackson fan.

It’s telling that E.T. and Thriller were released the same year. One was the ultimate popcorn movie and the other was the ultimate popcorn album. Like E.T., Thriller was slick, flashy, and light on its feet. From then on, Jackson kept the slickness and flash, but became buried under the weight of his own pretensions. If his last video was 13 minutes and cost a million bucks, the new one had to be 15 minutes and cost $2 million. If Eddie Murphy and Magic Johnson were in the last one, he needed Michael Jordan for the new one.

All these years later, the simple, low-budget videos for “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” and “Rock With You” remain a joy to watch, while the lavish clips for “Scream” or “Earth Song” are about as fun as a court summons.

So, rather than dwell on those downers, I’ll remember the time before MJ guarded his talent to death, when he was willing to toss off a few moments of brilliance for Joe “King” Carrasco, without regard to how it would impact his legacy, just because it sounded like a good time.

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