Michael Jackson used to be a pop star, the biggest on the planet. But in America, at least, he's been little more than a depressing story for the past 15 years. That story reached a stunning, sad ending on Thursday with Jackson's death at age 50. At this point, dying is probably the only thing Jackson could have done to get as many headlines as he commanded half his lifetime ago.
If you weren't around in the early 1980s, it might be difficult to grasp just how massive and inescapable Jackson was. I spent the summer of 1983 trying to get as far away from the mainstream as possible, listening to college radio and going to alternative-rock shows in basements. Yet I still heard Jackson at least a couple of times a day, because his music was just in the air that much.
In those more innocent days, when Jackson could be appreciated and judged on a purely musical level, that was perfectly o.k. You'd have to be deaf to miss the genius-level popcraft of his 1982 "Thriller" album, which spun off one huge radio and MTV hit after another. By the end of its run, "Thriller" had yielded seven top-10 singles and become the biggest-selling album in history, establishing Jackson as an icon for the ages.
Unfortunately, "Thriller" quickly became less of a career-defining milestone than a cross for Jackson to bear. Topping it was going to be impossible, because nobody ever climbs that high more than once. And yet topping himself became Jackson's goal. Garish, over-the-top marketing campaigns accompanied Jackson's subsequent albums, which sold massively without ever threatening the pinnacle of "Thriller." By the close of the '80s, he was just another pop star.
As his star faded, Jackson's music began to attract less attention than his eccentric behavior. There were strange stories about his Neverland Ranch, and his brief marriage to Lisa Marie Presley. More troubling, he drastically altered his appearance with a series of cosmetic surgeries that collectively added up to self-mutiliation.
Most troubling of all, accusations of pedophilia arose in the early '90s. Jackson was never convincted, but the millions he paid to settle litigation created an appearance of guilt. Although Jackson remained popular overseas, his career in America never recovered. He hasn't been in the top-10 of the U.S. pop singles chart since way back in 2001.
This created a climate in which Jackson's records were far more interesting as psychology than as music -- and I'll cop to being as bad as anyone about that. But a lot of his records have seemed like cries for help, from the lash-out anger of "Scream" to the nostalgic pathos of "Childhood" (in which the onetime child star asked, heartbreakingly, "Has anybody seen my childhood?"). Reviewing Jackson's 2001 album "Invincible," I wrote that a more fitting title would have been "Invisible," because that's what he seemed to be trying to accomplish by bleaching and narrowing every part of his face.
It's hard to imagine just how much pain and self-loathing it would take for someone to do that. "Heal the World," Jackson sang, and yet he seemed incapable of healing anything, especially himself. So it's easy enough to make tacky jokes or hurl accusations (and no, I'm not going to link to any of those; find 'em yourself, if you must). But this is still a sad, sad day for the planet.