Culture > Music
Associated Press/Photo by Joel Ryan

The king is dead

Music | Michael Jackson gained the whole music world but lost his reputation

Issue: "Crackdown," July 18, 2009

This summer was supposed to be a good one for Michael Jackson. His London comeback concerts, and thus his victory over years of scandal, were to begin in July. Instead, he died, leaving fans and pundits to wonder whether he might have been too far gone to come back at all.

Even if Jackson hadn't married Lisa Marie Presley, he would've been compared to Elvis, who also revolutionized pop music and spent his last years exhausting himself to pay bills. Jackson's revolution began with his 1982 album Thriller. Besides selling 100 million copies, it yielded an unprecedented seven Top 10 singles.

Before Thriller, an album would've run its course after six months, at which time a performer would already be working on a follow-up to keep his cycle in motion. But the chart time taken up by Thriller's hits made a hasty follow-up unnecessary. Five years elapsed before Jackson released Bad, years in which his timetable had become the music-industry norm.

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MTV, the popularity of which coincided with Thriller, is often credited with Jackson's success, but the opposite may have been the case: Without his videos in heavy rotation, MTV might have remained a cult curiosity. And it was certainly Jackson's involvement in USA for Africa that made "We Are the World" and Live Aid into cultural phenomena.

But as stardom transformed Elvis Presley into the "King of Tabloids," Jackson's post-Bad years turned out very bad indeed. Even his 10 Top 40 hits from the '90s were afterthoughts compared to his National Enquirer headlines.

And his plastic surgery and mysteriously decreasing pigment were afterthoughts compared to his trial on charges of child molestation. Jackson was acquitted, but his reputation was ruined. Like Elvis, Jackson had squandered his wealth. So, also like Elvis, he had to return to the stage. His 50 London shows were going to be his last.


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