Michael Jackson just died. Along with the sadness caused by his death, both for him and his large family, came a huge interest in his back catalog. "Number Ones", "The Essential Michael Jackson", and "Thriller" are the top three on the Billboard Comprehensive Album Chart (the Billboard main albums chart AND the catalog chart put together, as any album over 18 months old cannot chart in the Billboard 200 again), with "Off The Wall" at 15, "The Jackson 5 Ultimate Collection" at 25, "Dangerous" at 34, ""Greatest Hits: HIStory -- Volume 1" at 39, "Michael Jackson - The Ultimate Collection" at 41, "The Best Of Jackson 5: 20th Century Masters The Millennium Collection" at 67, "HIStory: Past, Present And Future Book 1" at 85, and probably a few more compilations and back catalog in the next 100, but I'm not paying for the chart.
Michael deserves this much recognition of his music, don't get my wrong. He didn't become the King of Pop through luck. Rather, put well by the title of the two compilations named "HIStory", he took the pop song and perfected it, both through the music and by being one of the first artists to truly understand the power the music video could have over the public and how to use it. When he was given near-complete control over his music and allowed to go in any creative direction he wanted, something many musicians strive for in order to achieve their "artistic ambitions", Michael managed to create an album (1987's "Bad") with five consecutive #1 singles in the US, and two more that charted in the top ten, a feat no one had achieved until that point, and no one has achieved since. This was released after five years of work and touring, following 1982's "Thriller", generally accepted to be the best-selling album of all time, estimated to have sold 109-million copies worldwide, twice the amount of the next best-selling record, a number that has continued to rise since its release, and has no signs of stopping anytime soon.
What I'm getting at is that Michael Jackson knew pop in a way no one else did. He knew how it worked, he know how to market it, he knew how to present it to people, and he proved that over the course of several albums. He pioneered the music video, making what would better be called short films, and he knew how to make people want to watch them. He did things that writers from the Brill Building would have been jealous of, and more importantly the man most inspired by the Brill Building's system, Barry Gordy, would be jealous of. How much Michael learned from Barry Gordy I don't know (I'm sure it can be found in biographies on either one of their lives however, and books about Michael be in no short supply anytime soon I'm sure), but it was obviously a great deal. His "assembly system" to music, while formulaic, worked wonders. Motown Records put out 45 #1 singles (by my count) during the 60's and 70's, four of those being from The Jackson 5, the first of which (1969's "I Want You Back") hitting #1 when Michael was just 11, and one being a Jackson solo cut, when he was just thirteen years old. All of this experience knowing how to top the charts certainly had an effect on young Michael, as he would continue the trend once he grew up and learned how to do it himself.
My fear, then, is how people will consider his music now. He was a pop singer, and as such obviously had to put emotion into his work for people to feel. Now though, alongside all of the feelings intended, people feel saddened by his music, both for his passing and for the all the circumstances that led to it. He was truly a hero and idol to many, but watching his life unfold through the 90's seemed like one bad decision after another. It eventually got to the point where there didn't even have to be a joke anymore, Michael Jackson himself was a punchline even without context, a man you saw and felt so unreal, both figuratively as the icon he was, hovering over all of music, and literally as his appearance slowly transformed into something that didn't even resemble the star from years and years of countless cosmetic surgeries. As stories of sexual abuse came, media sources reporting anything they could find no matter how valid it was, the way he was viewed could never be the same. He married Lisa Marie Presley in 1994, most likely largely to help his public appearance, but they divorced after barely over a year, leaving many still questioning if Michael really did molest that child.
His home didn't help. Neverland Ranch is a monument to everything Michael never had, the life of a child, lived forever, just as the name implies, named after the land of "Peter Pan" where boys never grow old. But like every child's imaginary kingdom, there were no limits, there was nothing that couldn't be bought. He had a carousel, he had a petting zoo, and more importantly he had "friends" (boys who Jackson would let into Neverland for sleepovers, and to play on the grounds). At the time no one checked what Jackson bought, he was Michael Jackson, how could you say no. Slowly however, all of this led to the greatest pop star of our time, no matter how many records he'd sold, beyond broke, in debt to a magnitude no one could imagine. A man who lived in youth, seemingly uncaring to how he appeared, who was publicly accused of molesting two different boys (or rather, there were only two taken truly seriously), all while fathering three children he claimed were his, but everyone understood they were not based on many factors, a major one being appearance. Many wondered if a man who lived like a child could be a father, even more so after the famed "balcony incident" in which he held his youngest son Blanket, yes his name was Blanket!, dangling over a hotel balcony. It was things like this that scared Michael Jackson and his legacy, and made it impossible to ever view him the same way again.
So now, how will people be able to view all of his music looking back? Will the public see a genius, a man who understood not only how good music works, but how people work, and how to give them something not only something they want, but also something new that they didn't know they wanted, but do. Or, and this is what I'm afraid of, will the public remember a supposed child molester, a man man who underwent plastic surgery to make himself "white" and supposedly "normal", but really turned him into something grotesque, a man who tried to live in eternal youth and failed, a parent who made people fear for the children, and more of an eternal punchline for all he did with his fame and fortune than how he acquired that fortune. This is what I wonder about Michael Jackson's legacy, and as much as I hope people remember a legend of music, not celebrity indulgence, it is something we will only be able to tell with time.
[Well, that was long and rambling enough. No one is going to read all that.]