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Death Becomes Him: At long last, the King of Pop makes his comeback

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Michael Jackson appears in London to announce his final concerts in the British capital in March 2009.
The Associated Press

Let’s take the clock back to the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Back to Michael Jackson’s two follow-up albums to Thriller, the biggest pop album of all time. Back to when Michael Jackson was the most famous man on the planet. Back to Bad and Dangerous, albums that in their very titles were eager to prove that Jackson still had it.

In the real story, Michael continues to chase ever higher heights of fame and success. And truth is, Bad is a fine album, and even Dangerous has its moments, but neither are as good as Thriller, or Off the Wall, for that matter, the album that really launched his solo career. In the real story, Michael’s entering the long dark shadow side of his own megawatt success, and he’s fighting it.

In our story, he doesn’t fight it. Instead, there comes a day when Michael realizes he will never outdo himself. He hit the peak, and the peak was an anomaly, a glitch in the system, a one-time, planets-aligning phenomenon. It can’t be topped. And so he stops trying. He loves the adoration, sure, but he’s been taking a look at the man in the mirror, if you will, a hard look, and he knows he’s starting to lose it. The pressure to stay on top is just too much, he realizes. What else does he have to prove?

Besides, the music world is growing. Labels like punk, or rock, or funk or disco, white music, black music—they’re all inadequate to really describe the explosion of countless genres and styles, rushing in all directions like the galaxies of an expanding universe. He wants to wrap his arms around it all, to reach everybody, but he realizes that’s too much to ask. The stage had always been a place of strength and serenity for him; now, no stage is big enough for him to continue to command the center.

Coming to this would have been hard, I imagine. The man was a born entertainer. But Mike, come on, man. Mastering the pop universe once is virtually impossible. Riding it out for a career? At that level? That is impossible. Anything that big just cannot last.

So, he comes to this realization, and he announces his retirement, and he disappears. He retreats to Neverland to indulge his neuroses Howard Hughes-style, out of the public eye. In our tale there is one trusted confidante who’s like, “Michael, listen, you gotta keep the kids out of the bedroom … I’m just saying … You don’t want to go there…” and Mike listens. He hires a battery of therapists to help him heal himself, body and soul, because he knows that, already, his music is being lost in the warped din of his public persona. So he pulls the plug. He sits up in his crib, writes some songs for himself, he finds himself as a human being. He stops trying to please the whole world.

And then one day, when grunge has played out, when hip hop has gone stale, when the quality of the talent at the top of the pop charts strikes everyone as singularly lackluster, a rejuvenated Jackson returns. And we’d be ready.

Michael Jackson appears in London to announce his final concerts in the British capital in March 2009.

Michael Jackson appears in London to announce his final concerts in the British capital in March 2009.

Because, as some have observed, the brother was due for a come back. Some huge Vegas show, perhaps—where he wouldn’t be burdened with trying to come up with newer, better hits, but could simply replay, reinvent the hits everyone loved. Little artistic risk, perhaps, but the showmanship would have won everybody over.

Those who had chafed at his juvenile, soft-spoken demeanor, who lost him with Macaulay Culkin, or Bubbles, or after the Elephant Man’s bones, or with the appalling ravaging of his face, might have rediscovered him again. Skeptics would have appreciated Jackson’s song craft, those blinding pop-dance jams that still rank, 30 years later, with the very best pop music ever made.

Those who thought he was an artificial construction, more monster than man, would have appreciated the undercurrent of paranoia and sadness and loneliness at the root of so many of his songs, even the dance-floor masterpieces. Think he’s kind of a wuss? Check out the aggression in his moves, in his very determination to win you over.

These days, with a million half-ass talents who can’t sing for shit (or singers who can but lack any artistic sense to harness their gifts) trying for their little taste of fame, we would have been reminded that even a diminished Michael Jackson could still out sing, out dance, out entertain, out hustle virtually all of them.

But let us deal with how it actually went down, with MJ dying of cardiac arrest in a rented Bel Air mansion last week at the age of 50, at least 15 years removed from the last time anyone thought he could be a cultural force, and 25 years removed from the last time he really was.

Let’s deal with reality, because the what-if story assumes the baroque freakishness that Michael Jackson’s life became was somehow an aberration, an accident, that the beautiful black man of the ‘70s was the real Michael Jackson, and everything that followed Thriller was not meant to be.

But the demons had to be there from way back. No one man gets through life being that famous for that long, the product of a domineering, abusive father, unscathed. (There was something rather clinically ghoulish about father Joe at the BET Awards the other night.) The paradox of Jackson is that he was fundamentally odd, fundamentally an outlier, a freak, and at once a man among boys (his talent far greater than his siblings, he had the musicianship of an adult from the beginning), yet a boy among men (standing by as his brothers tapped the groupie trappings of stardom). And yet, for a few years, and to a greater extent than any other pop star, he was at the center of the popular culture, a one-man synthesizer of identities. Black and white. Man and child. Man and woman. Straight. Gay. (Prince had most of the same ambiguities, which he also used to incredible effect, but you never had the sense that Prince, for all his eccentricities, was ever in danger of being broken by his demons. Maybe because Prince was never in any way a child.)

In other words, there was a short time where an America on the cusp of the digital age, growing ever more conscious of the full range of its diversity, could briefly finds its full expression embodied in one man. It was there in his kaleidoscopic music, this greedy assimilation of divergent styles of music (joyous at first, then more mechanical as he sought to make albums that literally would hit every demographic). It was there, of course, in his face—this grand plastic visage that could change genders and ethnicities…but it’s even deeper than that.

Check out his videos and you know that Michael was always transforming into something. He became a werewolf and a zombie in “Thriller.” He became a spaceship in Moonwalker. A panther in “Black and White.” He turned himself to dust at the end of “Remember the Time.” It was like he was trying to take all the fragments of possible ways of being, like he was some WALL-E-like robot pulling little bits and pieces of identity, bits of body, bits of self, like spare parts from a giant bin to put on and take off, never satisfied with the self he was creating.

In the pop culture sense (and in every other sense) we’re all bits and pieces of everything. The degree to which we accept this is the degree to which we find a basis for happiness. Jackson spent his whole adult life trying to find an identity he could be at peace with. He tried to rebuild the childhood he had been robbed off. Ultimately, he failed. Did he molest those kids? I don’t know. But clearly the trial pretty much killed him, and though it sounds corny, it’s most accurate, I think, to say that Jackson died of a broken heart.

He was set for another comeback this summer with a slate of 50 shows in London. The dates had already sold $85 million in tickets, and some commentators have lamented that we have missed the comeback that would have stuck. But after reading this article by Ian Halperin, which details the absolutely shattered physical and mental health of Jackson in the months leading up to the shows, it’s clear that the man had been in tremendous pain for years. Mike would have been damn lucky to get through one show alive.

So perhaps it’s best this way. To watch him, say, completely collapse on stage (or worse) in front of a huge audience, his voice and moves gone, the last realm of his power and place in the world utterly destroyed, would have been too much. What we have instead, right now, is surely Michael Jackson’s real, and final comeback. And it’s been awesome.

In the last week he has virtually crashed Twitter and Google. Nine of the top 10 albums on iTunes are his. Right now, the snickering over his life counts much less than the tears over the reminiscence of his great artistry. The ghostly wisp of a man fades beneath the thunderous beats of his great songs. My friend described an emotional Stevie Wonder concert in Kansas City a few days ago that paid tearful tribute. I’m walking into my buddy’s office, and some MJ is playing. I’m walking to get the mail and my neighbor two doors down, who looks like he’s from Russia, or some cold Eastern European joint, is blasting “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” from his SUV. Today, Michael Jackson is the greatest, most loved pop star on earth.

He called himself the King of Pop. Wanted all of us to do the same. It was so grandiose you couldn’t help but laugh at his megalomania, at his desperation. And in the throes of his latter two decades, he seemed especially unworthy of the tag. But now, the world is infinitely more complex and troubled. The pop culture landscape has gone global, viral, fragmented into a billion pieces, so much that pop music is just one narrow expression. All Michael Jackson wanted to do was be the King of Pop. Now, it seems like a simple and innocent dream, not the dream of an egomaniac but the dream of a child. It's a helpful phrase, because it's just big enough for us to unite his many facets, the comic and the tragic, and feel like we ourselves (for a moment) share something in common. So, it feels right, as the circus of his life finally goes dark, to think of him that way. But don’t take my word for it. Listen to his songs, man—the title fits.

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