The summer of 2009 was supposed to be a good one for Michael Jackson. The pop-music superstar was to perform the first of his 50 widely publicized comeback concerts in London in July, sell-out shows that would mark his triumphant return from more than a decade of scandals.
Instead, he died of cardiac arrest at the age of 50, leaving fans and pundits to wonder whether, given his reputation for physical and emotional fragility, he could've pulled off his comeback after all. (The majority of the concerts had already been postponed until 2010).
Even if Jackson hadn't married Lisa Marie Presley in 1994 (the marriage lasted two years), he would've been compared to Elvis. Both performers revolutionized the pop-music industry, and both spent their last years exhausting themselves in attempts to stay financially afloat.
Jackson launched his revolution with the release of his album Thrillerin November 1982. Besides selling 28 million copies to date-it is second only to the Eagles' Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975) among the all-time best-selling albums-Thriller yielded an unprecedented seven top-10 singles, five of which reached the top five and two of which- "Billie Jean" and "Beat It"-reached No. 1.
Before Thriller, an album's singles potential would've run its course after approximately six months, at which time a performer would already be at work on a follow-up album intended to keep his cycle of success in motion. But the sheer amount of chart time taken up by Thriller's hits made releasing a follow-up professionally disadvantageous. Five years elapsed before Jackson released Bad, a period in which the pattern Jackson had established became the music-industry norm.
Thriller also coincided with the music-video explosion. Although MTV is often credited with Jackson's success (he was the first black performer whose videos were aired on the network), the opposite may have been the case: Without the Jackson's riveting dance moves in heavy rotation, MTV would almost certainly have attracted far fewer viewers. And it was in large part his high-profile involvement in USA for Africa that made "We Are the World" and Live Aid among the most publicized phenomena of the 1980s.
But just as stardom transformed Elvis Presley from the "King of Rock 'n' Roll" into the "King of Tabloids," Jackson's post-Bad years turned out to be very bad indeed. Even with his latest songs keeping him on the charts (he had 10 top-40 hits in the 1990s), his music was an afterthought compared to what kept him on the cover of the National Enquirer.
First, there was the plastic surgery and his mysteriously decreasing pigment, then his Neverland Ranch, a bizarre playground gone haywire that would eventually become the site of his questionable behavior with boys, behavior for which he would eventually stand trial. Jackson was acquitted of criminal wrongdoing, but his reputation was ruined.
Jackson had managed-between his lavish lifestyle and his legal expenses-to squander his wealth. So, like Elvis-who besides habitually giving away Cadillacs had allowed himself to be financially hornswoggled by his manager, Col. Tom Parker-Jackson had to return to the stage. He had intended his 50 London shows to be his last.
As with most self-destructive celebrities, it is tempting to reduce Jackson to a warning sign on the wide road to destruction. As with most ubiquitous public figures, it's even more tempting to think that we knew him.
In fact, it's the rare individual who can even know himself. Having grown up in the public eye, it was perhaps inevitable that Jackson only seemed truly at home under its scrutiny.