Did Michael Jackson's Death Save His Reputation?

Ironically, you can use those same words to describe Michael Jackson's entire career -- cliched, creepy and hugely talented. I think the essayist Mark Steyn captured this best the other day: "… Even at his peak -- the "Thriller" videos, a quarter-century back -- [Jackson] was mostly a shrewd mélange of pop culture allusions: the hoofer's hat, the Fosse gloves, the Sgt. Pepper uniform … Surely the only thing sadder than living in a fantasy world is living in a second-hand fantasy, looking for J. M. Barrie's Neverland at a California ranch."

I think that's exactly right. Great popular music acts -- at least in modern times -- seem to have about a five-year run at the top. Think Elvis from Sun Studios to the Army, the Beatles from Ed Sullivan to the last note of "Abbey Road," the Stones from "Satisfaction" to "Sticky Fingers" and Bob Dylan from "Blowing in the Wind" to the motorcycle crash. Everything after that is, to one degree or another, self-parody and aftermath. Hence the argument, if you are a rock-pop god, for dying right near the end of that half-decade arc: Jimi, Janis, Otis, Buddy, Kurt -- no one ever has to picture you fat and dying on the toilet, or doing oldies tours, or wearing a long wig, eyeliner and pancake make-up.

You can make the case that Michael Jackson's five years were from 1979 to 1984 -- from the release of the "Off the Wall" album, where he became a fully-rounded solo artist, to the recording of "We are the World" (a cultural, but hardly artistic, triumph) and the Pepsi commercial fire. In between, the two peaks -- the twin zeniths of Michael Jackson's career -- were the release of the "Thriller" album in 1982 and the "Motown 25" special the following year.

With "Thriller," Jackson (with Quincy Jones producing) accomplished that one thing that always defines great pop artists: He merged multiple pop genres into one. That's what Sinatra did with swing, jazz and Tin Pan Alley, what Elvis did with black and white music, what the Beatles did with rock, R&B, classical music and the music hall.

With "Billie Jean," Jackson fused funk with pop; with "Beat It," he bolted, miraculously, Motown with hard rock and West Side Story; and with "Thriller," particularly the video, he remarried pop with B-movies. It was an astonishing tour de force, unique for that generation, and the record deserved every award and platinum award it got.

Copy Not as Good as Original

With the Motown special, Jackson took it all up one final notch. His dancing had always been a cause of wonder and admiration but, that night on television, Jackson put on a show -- including his first "moonwalk" -- that made viewers think of the greatest dancers of the century. At that moment -- and not for much more than that moment -- Michael Jackson was, in critic Mick LaSalle's words, the coolest person on Earth.

After that, it was just a long, long decline, ending last week. Sure, there were huge hits and multi-platinum albums and record-setting concerts, but Michael Jackson never again made another important contribution or added substantially to his repertoire. He just grew creepier and odder -– the world's greatest Michael Jackson impersonator, but even that only on his good days.

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