7/06/2009

Michael Jackson: Burdened by Talent, Cursed by Fame

Michael Jackson was, by any accepted measure of human qualities, one of a kind. His matchless abilities as a performer, and his many follies as a celebrity, set him far apart from the masses. He succeeded in climbing to the top of the heap in show business, selling enormous quantities of records and becoming the "King of Pop," but, in the long term, he had to pay a heavy price for his world-shaking stardom: the millions of fans who adored him also wanted to own him. When his life suddenly ended in Los Angeles on June 25, 2009, it provided a fateful conclusion to a fairy tale that already had gone seriously wrong.

He grew up in the Midwestern city of Gary, Indiana, and first entered the treacherous realm of fame as an unusually talented child in the late 1960s, performing and recording with his older brothers (Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, and Marlon) in The Jackson 5. After the five brothers were signed by Motown Records in 1968, they moved to California and released a string of hits ("I Want You Back," "ABC," "The Love You Save," "I'll Be There," "Mama's Pearl," "Never Can Say Goodbye," "Dancing Machine") in the 1970s, becoming known around the world. In the early 1980s, Michael Jackson became a superstar in his own right.

Thriller, Michael Jackson's sixth album, was released in November, 1982, and during the following months he quickly ascended to new heights, being universally acknowledged as the preeminent star of his generation. "Billie Jean" and "Beat It," two of the tracks that were taken from Thriller and released as singles, were among the biggest hits of 1983, and the album itself had achieved unprecedented sales by the end of that year. In 1984, Thriller received seven Grammy Awards. Michael Jackson's next album, Bad, released in 1987, confirmed his standing as one of the leading entertainers of all time. His talent, as both a singer and a dancer, inspired expressions of unreserved awe, sometimes verging on irrational worship, among his most faithful followers.

It seemed that the more his stature increased (both actually and in his own mind), the more he was unable to find stability and contentment. As his fame grew and grew, he became trapped within its unwholesome confines and was transformed into a forlorn figure of outlandish fantasy, utterly removed from the necessity of everyday constraints. Constant rumors of his peculiar habits (particularly his questionable fondness for the companionship of children) and his extravagant way of life, along with his two marriages (his first wife was Lisa Marie Presley, the daughter of Elvis Presley) and two divorces, kept the press and the public interested in his private activities, but the quality of his music began to steadily decline.

When Michael Jackson reached middle age at the end of the 1990s, he was little more than an object of disparaging curiosity, celebrated mainly for his freakishness. In 2005, he was forced to go through the ordeal of being tried, and then acquitted, on charges of molesting a boy who had visited him at Neverland Ranch, his home in Santa Babara County. At the same time, he was reported to be heavily in debt and in frail health. His formerly black skin appeared to have turned white, and his features had been repeatedly altered by plastic surgery. Many observers voiced the opinion that his youthful greatness was gone forever.

In Los Angeles, Michael Jackson had spent weeks preparing to make a grand comeback at the age of fifty, having rashly committed to a string of demanding performances at the O2 Arena in London, but it was not to be. As it turned out, he had fatally overreached himself. His longtime dependence on prescription drugs (compliantly dispensed to him by unprincipled doctors) finally proved to be his undoing. In the years to come, much will be said and much will be written regarding his music, his eccentricities, and his failings, but the sad truth of his life always was apparent. He was burdened by his own talent, and cursed by his own fame.