By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
The story ends here.
What began in poverty ends in unknowable wealth. What began in a crowded, working-class home in a crowded, working-class city ends in a vacuum of isolation. What began in tragedy ends in tragedy.
In the pantheon of popular culture, Michael Jackson's spot is singular. There can be no comparison made to anyone who came before him, nor to anyone who came after—no performer so totally dominated the consciousness of his time. No performer rose as high, nor fell so far. No performer was more deeply lionized and more deeply scandalized. His life was a grotesque beauty, a thing crafted by the Greek tragedians. He was a man whose many talents were instrumental in his own undoing.
Oh, what a paradise it seemed. As a diminutive, cherubic boy, at an age when most children were preoccupied by childish things, Jackson was already a media star with an unerring vocal range that could stop you in your tracks. He could dance. He was affable. He was handsome. By the time he was 24 years old, he was responsible for two of the greatest records in the history of pop music, Off the Wall and Thriller, and had achieved a level of global celebrity previously unknown. Fans were so moved by his presence that ambulances and stretchers had to be readied by the dozens at his concerts to cart away those who passed out at the mere sight of him.
But the ecstasy soon turned to bewilderment—as scrutiny of him increased, so did the depth of his eccentricities. What at first seemed to be the naiveté of a child was revealed to be something more unnerving—the stasis of arrested development. Through the '80s, as Jackson's skin paled to the point of pallor, as rumors and whispers piled upon him, as his face began to show the ravages of disastrous plastic surgery, and as devastating sex scandals forced him into exile, bewilderment became horror. Jackson, who had once been the beaming face of a powerful mainstream, was now a creature warped by a lifetime of examination, a man twisted by the very public of which he was at once master and slave, and who stood before all humanity like an alien reflection in a funhouse mirror.
We all have it—our favorite Jackson moment. Perhaps you practiced the moonwalk across a waxed hardwood floor and tripped over your own feet. Or you have a cassette copy of Bad that hasn't left your car in more than a decade. Perhaps Thriller was the first vinyl record you ever bought with your own money. Or you watched him perform "Billie Jean" live on television and burst into tears, for you had never seen or heard anything so beautiful.
To summarize him is preposterous. To praise him is needless. To pardon him is impossible. The only way to memorialize Jackson is to stand in private awe of him. That one life could have been so beautiful, so troubled, so productive, and so horrific is nearly beyond understanding. In a sense, Jackson was the grand example of humanity—in one man, as in few before him, the very best and the very worst of the species existed for us to observe, to see, to love, to hear, and to fear. A man ruined by his own greatness, and by our insatiable need for it. A man who, despite innumerable frailties both physical and mental, seemed, somehow, invincible.
But scandal fades. Works are forever. And to look on Jackson's works is to look on the greatest artistic influence ever wielded. Why and how Jackson became the most famous person the century ever knew is a matter for the anthropologists. For us, here and now, Jackson was elemental and impossible to ever fully understand; fearsome and heartbreakingly beautiful; at once mortal and deathless.