Michael Jackson: Thoughts on the Passing of a Legend

Watching coverage of the astonishing news about the death of Michael Jackson, I was brought back to the long, long ordeal of writing the entry for Thriller.

The pundits and news anchors (at least CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann) appeared trapped in that reflexive celebrity-appreciation loop – dude was an amazing talent! dude was very very creepy!

That was familiar. Normally I’m of the “trust the art, not the artist” mindset, but when my first draft had nothing about his foibles – those lapses in judgement, the physical transformations, the odd behavior – it seemed myopic, a willful whitewash that didn’t equip the uninitiated to understand Michael Jackson. As great as Thriller is, and it is as near-perfect a pop music experience as is available to us, what happened in its aftermath is a sordid, painful, arguably preventable tragedy, with a few brilliant tracks interspersed along the way. (See playlist below.)

So I rewrote the thing; this time there was too much emphasis on the troubles. I realize now that striking a balance was difficult because Jackson, whom Olbermann irritatingly kept calling a “man-child,” so completely owned the extremes. He was the brilliant inventor of a vocabulary of gestures and dances and accompanying sounds that revolutionized popular music. And he was also the willfully weird, endlessly media-aware recluse of Neverland.

Then there was the not-small problem of finding something new to say about Thriller and the other records Jackson made with Quincy Jones: As soon as that still-blazing first track from Off The Wall (“Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough”) caught on, Jackson attained a rare ubiquity: His ideas spread everywhere, like a delicious contagion. We heard the electroshock sounds all the time, and somehow didn’t mind hearing them again. And it wasn’t just the sounds, but the feeling Jackson sent along with them – a giddy, not-to-be-contained exuberance that said, in not many words or no discernable words at all, what a rush it is to be alive.



“Wanna Be Starting Something”

The Jackson 5: “I Want You Back.”

“Rockin’ Robin” “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough”

“Man in the Mirror”

“Billie Jean”


The Jacksons: “Enjoy Yourself”

“Rock With You”

“Human Nature”

“Smooth Criminal”


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#1 from Eric Wissing, midwest - 06/26/2009 8:21

He was a great dancer, singer, performer. It was so obvious that he was really weird. When I saw the letter “To the children of the world” that Time Magazine printed not just the text but an actual photo of his writing, you knew he hadn’t received any formal schooling beyond 2nd grade, It was sad. I am surprised he lasted this long. He was used. I don’t think he knew any loyalty.

#2 from Gladys Calladine - 07/01/2009 7:52

his death means the end of a musical time. I love his strong dance and his great effort.

#3 from Andy Schwartz, New York NY - 07/02/2009 8:28

On the night of Michael Jackson’s death, I pulled out a handful of seven-inch singles and rediscovered some great Jackson 5/Jacksons tracks. Among these were the Motown tracks “Get It Together” (‘73, prod. by Berry Gordy) and the two-part “I Am Love” (‘74). Pt. II of “I Am Love” is as close as we ever got to the sound of an imaginary J-5/Jimi Hendrix collaboration. Produced by Gamble & Huff, the jazzy “Show You The Way To Go” (1977) is one of the group’s best tracks from their Epic period with a “breakdown” after the verses that I only wish would go on for at least 3-4 minutes longer (and maybe it does, on some now-rare 12-inch mix).

#4 from Shana - 07/04/2009 2:09

Rip michael jackson

#5 from Shana - 07/04/2009 2:12

Michael will always be the greatest. U will 4ever be the KING OF POP. God called on him because he completed Gods work. Now, him and JAMES BROWN are 2getha again. Now, everybody in heaven can dance with the stars. RIP i will always love u.

#6 from JCM - 07/25/2009 11:33

Wow, Shana—you are ludicrous! When will you start sharing your “Magic Frosted Flakes” with the rest of us…?

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