Originally published June 25, 2009 at 3:16 p.m., updated June 25, 2009 at 3:44 p.m.
LOS ANGELES Singer Michael Jackson, the man known as the King of Pop to legions of fans around the globe, who lived most of his extraordinary life in the public eye, died Thursday in Los Angeles after going into cardiac arrest, sources tell NPR. He was 50 years old.
It used to be that Jackson's talent was the most compelling thing about him, says music critic Jody Rosen.
"I think 'I Want You Back' is one of the greatest pop singles I've ever heard," Rosen says.
A Childhood In The Limelight
"I Want You Back" was the hit single that famously thrust a young Michael Jackson and four of his brothers from the Gary, Ind., talent show circuit to world fame. Their grimly focused father put Michael on stage at age 5. The child, says Rosen, somehow channeled the gifts of vastly more seasoned performers.
"He had a very gritty voice at that time, which is strange, given that as he grew older, he started to sing more and more like a pre-pubescent little boy," Rosen says. "And when he was a pre-pubescent little boy, he was singing like a soul elder statesman."
The Jackson 5 had four No. 1 singles in a row, as well as a TV show; the group toured constantly. This was all under the guidance of Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, who had a genius for crossover — molding black artists into mainstream stars. But Gordy told NPR's Liane Hansen in 1994 that young Michael had a regular childhood.
"Oh, we played baseball every week. We did all kinds of fun things," Gordy said. "I think it's been overdramatized about his lack of fun, having no childhood. He had a childhood."
That account is disputed by Jackson biographers.
Rosen says, "There are stories of the Jackson 5 on the road and all the older brothers cavorting with groupies, while young Michael Jackson — 10, 11, 12 years old — sat in a corner and hung out."
Jackson's years at Motown were a study in manipulation and control. Like Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye before him, Jackson rebelled. He left Motown and took his first adult solo album to another label. But on the surface, Rosen says, Jackson morphed from child star to pop idol with apparent ease.
'Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough'
"At the time, his transition to adulthood really did seem seamless," Rosen says. "He was a disco-era prince. This was 1979. He was this beautiful young man, and he was recording these dance songs which married the music of the disco era and the emphasis on party anthems with the feeling of classic soul."
The break from Motown paid off with a new kind of rhythm and blues, says Jason King, a professor at New York University. King says in Jackson's album Off the Wall, you can hear a euphoric sense of freedom.
"Absolutely it was his declaration of independence," King says. "He had a particular vision of himself doing these funk up-tempo dance numbers and the ballads he had done as a child — but to do them on his own."
With the help of producer Quincy Jones, Off the Wall scored four Top 10 hits. But King says for Jackson, that wasn't enough.
"He wanted to do something that would cross over even more — that was his dream, his ambition," King says. "All of the major Motown artists had the same ambition, which was upward mobility, crossover — reach as high as you can."
In 1983, Michael Jackson's Thriller became the top-selling album in the world. Critic Rosen says Jackson's restless crossover ambitions were realized with Thriller, especially with "Beat It."
"Jackson hired Eddie Van Halen — who at the time was hard rock's reigning guitar hero — to play this goofy heavy metal solo," Rosen says. "And that also helped get him on MTV, which, prior to that time, had been the domain almost exclusively of white artists."
Jackson changed MTV for black artists and for music video auteurs, who admired his skill with the medium. But NYU's King says Jackson was driven to top his own success.
"[His success] became an impossible goal because Thriller sold such an incredible amount of copies," King says.
Fall From Grace
Jackson released more records, but sales declined precipitously. Jackson's music got denser and more baroque, his behavior more erratic. His videos and performances became bloated, multimillion-dollar affairs. And then came the charges of child molestation.
For comedians like Chris Rock, Michael Jackson became a punch line.
"Another kid? That's like another dead white girl showing up at OJ's house," Rock once joked in a comedy routine.
Or an extended riff.
"Another kid, get the [expletive] out here," Rock said. "Yo, that's how much we love Michael. We love Michael so much we let the first kid slide."
We've loved Michael Jackson, been horrified by him and we've pitied him.
Not long ago, Rosen was at a nightclub. Everyone there was too cool to dance. Then the DJ started spinning Jackson's early hits, one after the other.
"As soon as he started playing those, the dance floor was stampeded," Rosen says. "The longer it went on, the more ecstatic the crowd got, and everyone was dancing. That's the image I'd like to remember MJ by: just sheer joy generated by his best music."
The Michael Jackson in his mind, Rosen says, was not a has-been, a controversy or a joke. He was a genius.