The world has certainly seen singers just as good as Michael Jackson, who died on June 25. Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley and The Beatles are all just as revered. Jackson’s lyrics are certainly not the most deep or complex among songwriters. His dance was capable of sending a thrill down the spine of millions of people, but there are other performers who are just as good. Jackson’s singing voice while instantly recognizable and versatile was certainly good, but was it the best in the history of pop music? Certainly not. So what is that which makes Jackson’s place unique in the annals of pop? What was it in Jackson that his death that triggered a worldwide outpouring of grief? What is it that makes Jackson the most consummate performer of all time, someone who has sold 750 millions records across the world?
Jackson was born in Indiana in the US in 1958. He was just 50 when he died. His body had been constantly abused by drugs and quirky dietary habits. Years ago, Jackson’s quest to have a dancer’s body had left him anorexic. He also suffered from a disease which turned his skin pale, often requiring him in later years to wear an umbrella to sheild it from the sun. From morphine to valium, Jackson is reported to have been addicted to a host of drugs. Though the exact cause of his death is uncertain, the abuse his body took certainly brought a quicker end to his life.
As the lead singer of Jackson 5, the youngest in the group consisting of Michael and his brothers, Jackson shot into fame at a tender of age of 10. He was precocious and extraordinarily gifted. In videos shot of the group performing, it is impossible to take your eyes off Michael. His high-pitched voice, which would mature but remain quite shrill over the years, was nevertheless versatile and sweet. In 1971, Jackson went solo with the album Ben. But it was Thriller released in 1982 that made Jackson an universally recognized artist.
It was Thriller that made Jackson actor Prabhu Deva’s idol. It was Thriller that inspired an unknown number of similar dance sequences in Tamil cinema, some of them choreographed by Deva. It was Thriller, which sold a world record 100 million albums, that put Jackson on the cultural map in India, making him an inspiration for every teen in the country. Even those who had never heard of pop music until Thriller knew Jackson. In the US, Thriller’s 14-minute video, produced by Jackson and his longtime friend Quincy Jones, started the music video revolution and when aired on MTV became a turning point for the channel. Overnight, the music video went from being a promotional tool used to boost CD and cassette sales to an artistic medium in its own right.
In death, Jackson would similarly change the shape of the media. News of Jackson’s death, which was first reported by the website TMZ, owned by Time Warner, created such a surge of visitors on the Internet that nearly silenced it. TMZ reportage was so fast that it beat the official coroner’s announcement of Jackson’s death by nearly six minutes. Google reports that the sudden rise in visitors to its news portal had initially caused it to fear a massive attack on its servers. Twitter, the fledging micro-blogging tool, too crashed with a flood of tweets from people inquring about Jackson’s fate. Wikipedia has reported that its page on Jackson has had the maximum number of hits in its eight-year history.
But fame for Jackson came at a punitive price. Jackson would in later years reveal that his childhood was torturous. His father Joseph Jackson, who was in the show business, often abused Michael, physically and mentally. Years later, in 1993, Jackson was accused of child sexual abuse, charges that would surface again in 2005 resulting in a trial. Though he was acquitted, Jackson’s image would never be the same again. Accusations that he slept with children at Neverland Ranch, the home he had created for himself (based on the Neverland in Peter Pan) were so endlessly repeated that nobody at the end cared whether they were true or false. At least a few may have been forgiven in death, but during the time of his trial, the world incensed by relentless and often untruthful media coverage, poured hatred on Jackson. The artist himself was responsible for some of the bewilderment he caused. Right from the 1980s, Jackson planted controversial stories about him in the media, including one in which he was reported to have been sleeping inside a chamber that supposedly would slowed his aging process. These incredulous stories too did their fair share in harming Jackson’s public image.
debt running into millions of dollars may actually be negated by the surge of emotion for him, which has fueled the sales of his records. Obit writers have spend columns writing about his glove, his dance, his music and the most difficult to understand of all this: the artist himself. Jackson surpassed all the Rock greats because he was the best at packaging himself. His signature was so etched into his music, his jerky dance movements, his moonwalk, that sequined glove, that vulgar move he made to grab his crotch, and even the shrill cries that often punctuated his songs. Jackson was the sort of artist where the whole was more than a sum of all those parts. It is perhaps why in these days we keep returning him. To decipher him, one has to concede, is impossible.