Eight years after his death, when people speak of Michael Jackson, it often comes with a disclaimer about loving the music but not the man. What images first come to mind when thinking of Michael: the red Thriller outfit, a rhinestone glove, the moonwalk. Some may picture him dangling his baby over a four-story balcony, see him testifying in court, see his whittled-down nose. Michael Jackson had range, and I’m not talking vocals. He was easy to love and easy to hate. The negative is tethered to him and unlike Peter Pan, Michael’s shadow can’t be separated…even if he did build his own Neverland. There was a time when things were quite opposite for Michael. He was an epitome of excellence in the 80s and the circumstances surrounding his rise to the “King of Pop” helped ensure a popularity few entertainers ever see. This isn’t breaking news to anyone alive in the 80s, but people born later never got to know a Michael that didn’t come without baggage.
Simply put, Michael Jackson once represented cool. He was a great performer and his music resonated with widespread audiences. Kids and adults imitated his dance moves. An aunt or uncle, grandma or teacher, might compliment a child’s singing by calling them a little Michael Jackson. Radio announcers always seemed excited to play his songs, and people strived to see him, even just in commercials.
His musical history began with the Jackson 5 in the 60s. By the early 70s, he recorded some hits with the band and was called a teen heartthrob. In the late 70s, he released his solo album, Off the Wall and gained individual fame and acclaim. But it wasn’t until 1983, when he released Thriller, that he absolutely soared into mainstream popularity.
When a musical entertainer explodes with popularity, they also tend to get the old “Footloose” style resistance from older generations. In Michael’s case, the older generations had already become accustomed to him as the little boy they’d seen on TV with the Jackson 5. Perhaps they’d heard him singing a nice little Christmas tune. As he invaded living rooms with music videos, he also did it with extreme style. Michael attracted great directors and made videos that everyone wanted to see. No joke, I remember once being at my grandma’s house—a fairly rural house by the way, very white and fairly religious. Some cousins were watching music videos. The “Thriller” video was fairly new. When it came on, my cousins screamed and shouted and everyone in the house, young to old, stopped what they were doing to watch.
Not hurting matters, Michael was good looking. He wore ostentatious outfits, but he had an image that seemed to resonate with changing trends of the 80s. When he spoke, Michael sounded fairly modest. He often thanked his fans. One of the biggest things that helped his image was his generosity. Michael often made large donations to charities or the underprivileged. Then in 1985, he helped compose and sing “We Are the World,” a benevolent song to raise money for humanitarian aid in Africa.
Sure, not everyone liked Michael or his music. As he catapulted to stardom, tabloids reported oddities about Michael, even trying to give him the name, “Wacko-Jacko.” He was eccentric. Entertainers often are. Okay, he was weird. That was obvious before he even released Thriller, when he spoke of doing things like someday having lots mannequins in his home. He also began to gather a menagerie of wild animals, but weird did not translate to negative. See, Michael was cast in a positive light early on, and once in this light that seemed to be the general way people saw him. Besides, there were positive spins to most things he did.
Early stories about skin bleaching came with sympathy for a medical disorder he had that caused patchy-looking skin. His purchases of wild animals came in tangent with him saving the life of a research chimp named Bubbles. His interest in kids and child-actors seemed likely enough to stem from him sacrificing his own childhood for fame. Whatever he did in the 80s just seemed to make big news, and no matter what was reported, respect for his talent and his charitable work helped trump away negatives. He did make a few chips in his reputation though.
In 1987, he released the Bad album. The music video for “Bad,” caused some stir. This was the first time I remember my own religious grandparents and relatives scoffing about Michael and his infamous, “crotch grab.” Yes, even kids seemed to find the move a bit odd. Only an idiot would imitate the crouch grab for those same teachers or relatives mentioned earlier in hope of being called a little Michael Jackson (but I like to think I wasn’t the only one). Michael survived whatever negative PR was thrown his way, and as the decade ended, he was crowned with the nickname, “King of Pop.”
What did the title mean exactly? The title seems more applicable not when comparing Michael to his musical contemporaries, but when looking beyond music. Michael had starred in a few movies over the years. He had videogames based on him. There had been Michael Jackson dolls in the 80s, and he starred in the exclusive Disney attraction, Captain EO. Merchandise had his face all over it. “King of Pop,” almost begins to describe his immense standing in the entertainment world in general. The fact that the title caught on fairly seamlessly, is also testament to how well the name fit him.
The 90s started fairly strong for Michael. He finished building his personal amusement park, “Neverland Ranch.” His albums continued to sell and his new music remained pertinent even with changing musical trends. The only thing that seemed to change was Michael’s appearance. He grew whiter and more sculpted in face, which did open him to scrutiny. Still, Michael continued doing charitable work, even becoming an early spokesman for AIDs awareness—a move that many entertainers seemed to avoid at the time. There was even a made for TV movie that showed the triumphs and trials of Michael’s youth with the Jackson 5. Michael wasn’t just a celebrity. He was an icon, a pillar in the entertainment world that so many loved, and it seemed like his reign would go on for many years. Then 1993 hit.
In 1993, Michael performed in an impressive Super Bowl halftime show. A month later, Michael did a much watched interview with Oprah Winfrey. Then in the summer of 1993, Michael Jackson was accused of child molestation.
Some people vehemently denied the plausibility. Many others were quick to point a finger and reference oddities in his past. The situation was rather “black or white,” and unlike Michael’s song lyrics, it did matter to most. Any of those bizarre things about Michael up to this point were nothing by comparison. Really, he had a pet chimp, liked cartoons, said funny things. Big deal! Hearing news of the molestation charge and seeing friends’ faces when they talked about it was comparable in many ways to finding out about Santa Claus.
The molestation case was settled out of court with nothing conclusive given to the media and public. Regardless of arguments about what really happened, the damage was done. In the next few years, the media seemed to stop using the “King of Pop” title. Michael’s music still remained popular, but it was like he’d gone from that icon in entertainment into just a musician, with no demand for Michael Jackson toys, videogames, movies, etc. As the 90s went on, he continued his musical career, continued helping charities, and continued to be a news sensation, with reporters heavily covering his marriages and his children, often finding shock value in things he said or did. The weird and odd and negative just continued to cling to him and it only got worse.
In the early 2000s, more child molestation charges were brought against him. People criticized Michael’s parenting skills, and he faced financial troubles. This meant he couldn’t give as much money to charities. Michael’s physical image continued to change too. If you look at Michael over the years, his changing physical appearance seems to shift along with his waning public image, changing from that normal good looking guy he was in the early 80s to someone who no longer even resembled the original Michael Jackson near the end of his life. News of his death, despite all the negatives over nearly twenty years, saddened much of the world.
Reporters and friends who’d known Michael early on in his adult-career in the 80s had spoken of what a shy man he was. They’d talked about him as if he were two different people: the amazing and confident performer, and the lonely man who never had a childhood and never learned how to properly fit in socially. It seems like Michael is remembered as two people also: that amazing and confident performer, and that bizarre man people try not to think too much about.
Michael was a big fan of Peter Pan and he loved fantasy worlds in general. The days prior to 1993 almost seem like a fantasy—a place where Michael Jackson had nothing negative lingering on him except some weird rumors. Back in those times, Michael Jackson was just an amazing singer, a great dancer, a generous person, and an icon in entertainment deserving of the title, “King of Pop.” It was a cool time.