It’s quite possible that the world will never see another musician, another performer … another phenomenon like Michael Joseph Jackson. In the 1980s, three words were applied to him that both lauded his life and bracketed him in inescapable scrutiny: “king of pop.” Let’s just hit the statistics, to get warmed up.
- Michael Jackson is considered “the most successful entertainer of all time” by the Guinness Book of World Records.
- His sixth solo album Thriller was released in 1982 and is still the best selling album of all time clocking in at (at least) 110 million copies sold. He also secured the highest royalty rate in the industry prior to releasing it, 37 percent of wholesale album profit. Go on, do the math. We’ll wait.
- With his work on that album, he redefined the music video as a major artifact of pop music, helping springboard a fledgling cable network called MTV to international relevance.
- He’s been inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame twice. Once apparently wasn’t enough.
- He’s the first and only dancer from the world of pop or rock to be inducted into the Dance Hall of Fame.
- He’s won more American Music Awards than anyone (26).
- He has 13 number one singles in the US to match his 13 Grammy Awards.
- He’s sold an estimated 750 million record worldwide.
- He was the owner of the ATV Music Publishing library, holding the copyrights on almost 4,000 songs, including most of the ones by Lennon and McCartney as the Beatles.
- Finally this year, Katy Perry tied his record of having five #1 singles off of one album.
Best of all, these are just some of his accomplishments as a solo artist. He was already outlandishly famous and culturally relevant from his tenure as lead singer of The Jackson 5, where he was featured in a cartoon series, signing with Motown in 1968, starting with four #1 singles at the label and recording together, off and on, until 1984.
Jackson’s life wasn’t all flashbulbs and glory. He admitted to Oprah Winfrey and journalist Martin Bashir the beatings and emotional abuse he endured under the heavy hand of his father Joe Jackson. He was the target of multiple accusations of child sexual abuse, despite never being convicted. His then-signature Jheri curl caught fire during the filming of a commercial for Pepsi, suffering second degree burns to his scalp. He broke his nose in 1979 during a dance routine, leading to the first of many rhinoplasty surgeries that began to alter his appearance. From his lightening skin tone (attributed to vitiligo) and became widely regarded as an extreme eccentric, “Wacko Jacko” and a number of other less forgiving nicknames.
Ask most Black people and they won’t give a damn about any of it. Even with Brooke Shields on his arm, even after marrying the Presley scion or Debbie Rowe and his clearly white “children,” Michael Jackson was unapologetically ours. He could make grown men faint and swoon in foreign lands, he could march in military fatigues at the front of a phalanx, but he was still that amazing little boy from Gary, Indiana. Even in the depths of the prosecutions for child abuse, Michael Jackson could have walked into any Black church, any Black business, anywhere in the United States and been treated as if an angel from on high had deigned to grace us with its presence. At his memorial, Reverend Al Sharpton said to Jackson’s children, “Wasn’t nothing strange about your daddy. It was strange what your daddy had to deal with. But he dealt with it anyway,” which led to a standing ovation.
On a personal note, this writer’s mother used to work at Disneyland, and when in the bathroom, getting ready to leave after her shift, a huge commotion happened outside the door, as a slight figure in a ridiculous wig and beard disguise was shoved in the door away from a hundreds-deep throng of people. Michael Jackson, simply trying to enjoy a day at a theme park, was so recognized and so mobbed that he was trapped in that bathroom with this writer’s mother for more than a half hour. Far from a global icon, he was just a scared, slight man who almost didn’t understand the fuss. He spoke kindly and simply waited for his security to say that it was clear for him to leave. After that incident, the management agreed to shut down the park whenever he wanted to visit, an honor given to almost no one else.
Terms like “icon” weren’t big enough, words like “star” too dim to encompass the intensity of his talent and his impact on a whole community of people. Nobody Black had ever ascended so high, to keep presidents and popular names at his beck and call. He built a freaking amusement park at his mansion to try and recapture a childhood he spent singing James Brown covers in dustry Indiana speakeasies. He gave lavishly to charity, making public his desire to fight against HIV/AIDs and using his political capital to raise awareness and funds for Africa, all the way back to “We Are The World.” No matter how we shook our heads at the hyperbaric oxygen chamber or the sidekick monkey, Michael Jackson was our Michael Jackson, from Steeltown’s “Big Boy” through “Butterflies.”
Jackson died June 25, 2009 of a cardiac arrest and acute propofol intoxication, a death ruled a homicide at the perhaps less-than-sure hands of his personal physician. The intensity of people’s interest in knowing, confirming his death (which completely eclipsed the passing of Farrah Fawcett earlier that day and Ed McMahon earlier that week) crashed the websites of TMZ and The Los Angeles Times, and led Google to believe they were the target of a denial of service attack, raising global internet traffic somewhere between 11 and 20 percent for weeks after his death. Even in the laments of rappers like Kanye West years later, he still looms huge in our consciousness, and we’re grateful to have live to experience his reign.
Anedge hirak Michael Jackson, and may you finally have the peace this life denied you.
NOTE: For a special mix of Michael Jackson’s music, put together in part by Spike Lee, along with literally dozens more free MP3s, please check our #musicmonday coverage.