Notes From the Soundboard: A Michael Jackson Retrospective

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Notes from the Soundboard is a new column appearing weekly on Crossfade,  focused on pop music's history and ongoing evolution. Lee Zimmerman shares insights and observations on how music continues to connect with the weirdness of the world. Click here to read past installments.

In the coming days, this headline will morph into a cliché: "The King Is Dead."

If one wants to quibble, it ought to be remembered that Michael Jackson was the self-proclaimed the King of Pop. Whether or not that title was well deserved is, rightfully, a matter of individual conjecture.

Because when it came to Michael Jackson, there was rarely a confluence of opinion. You either loved him or hated him. Some thought him a genius, others, a weirdo -- "Wacko Jacko," as his detractors labeled him. As always, the truth likely falls somewhere in between.

What's undeniable is that Jackson was clearly one of the most troubled individuals to ever reach those highest pinnacles of superstardom. Elvis had his bizarre quirks, the Stones have theirs.  But in terms of life as soap opera, neither could compare with Jackson's. The accusations of child molestation, the missteps, the scandals and the frailty accompanying his child-like persona -- these factors all contributed to his slow disintegration and ever-spiraling decline into his own personal malaise.

Watching him on 60 Minutes, defending himself against the accusations of perversion leveled at him from all quarters, I couldn't help but being struck with what a sad spectacle he had become. Some will insist that he was nothing more than a pervert wrapped in the guise of an innocent, a hopelessly misguided individual who had disfigured himself in the name of self-preservation, even to the point where he looked like a grotesque creature that sprung from the pages of a graphic novel.

 Ultimately, his was a visage of absolute, unfettered misery. Pity the poor multi-millionaire, the battered megastar. During those few moments of screen time, he was infinitely more lost and vulnerable than even the most desperate denizen of our streets and back alleys.

It's unfortunate too, because in viewing the numerous old performance clips that will litter the airwaves in the days to come, one initially sees a vibrant, attractive young man, an extraordinary talent with a seemingly natural ability to dazzle and entertain.  Just watch him at the helm of the Jackson 5, or doing the incredible comeback turn at Motown 25, where his moves announced unequivocally that he was claiming his crown. Or any number of stage or video appearances. What remains often now is feeling of regret and disappointment that such soaring, searing talent, such absolute, unqualified brilliance, should fall prey to a series of missteps and ongoing public humiliation.  Such a shame....  More than that, such a tragedy as well.

Death has a way of blurring the past, either by amplifying the victories or sidestepping the failings. But given the larger-than-life persona that Jackson embodied, it's doubtful that anything less than the full breadth of his iconic image will be analyzed, scrutinized and held up to public scrutiny, the tarnished views and all.

But hopefully too, it will be the music that inevitably lingers long after the more uncomfortable images and insinuations fade away. As always, it will be hard to turn away. But maybe now we'll peer in wonderment, and not simply in the obsession of trying to analyze an odd and absorbing spectacle.


Because clearly there's much to admire, and even adore. The early exuberance of the Jackson 5 still inspires. Michael twisting and spinning while intoning "I Want You Back," counting off "ABC," insisting "I'll Be There" ... the barrier-breaking accomplishment of Off The Wall, Thriller ... the seemingly endless string of hit singles and Grammy nods. And hopefully it will be remembered, too, that before the breakthrough albums, there was a solo career taking flight at a remarkably early age (Ben, anyone?)

The list of accomplishments may never be equaled. There was his ability to bend musical boundaries and attract audiences of all races and persuasions -- the appearance of rocker Eddie Van Halen on "Beat It" was in itself a tribute to his ability to blur boundaries. There was his indelible presence on MTV, his accomplishment in creating best-selling album of all time in Thriller. And of course there was the immense adoration that accompanied his every appearance, even when marred by scandal.

There will never be another Elvis. Never another John Lennon. And clearly, never another Michael Jackson. Daresay, one can't even imagine the possibility. 
 

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