With millions around the world mourning his death and some commentators hitting outlandish heights of hyperbole while trying to assess his cultural impact, Michael Jackson poses two fascinating questions for students of popular music.
Where does the self-professed King of Pop fit in the pantheon of musical greats? And will his recordings continue to endure 10, 20 or 50 years in the future?
Eulogizing the King of Rock 'n' Roll after his death in 1977, rock critic Lester Bangs famously wrote, "I can guarantee you one thing: We will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis."
Bangs himself died a few months before the release of "Thriller" in 1982, so we'll never know if the best-selling album of all time might have prompted him to revise his opinion about Elvis Presley's lock on the title of pop music's biggest unifying force. I suspect that Bangs just got caught up in the frenzy over Presley's passing: Certainly he knew that a generation before Elvis, Frank Sinatra had an impact almost as profound and wide-reaching, while a generation after, the Beatles did the same.
During the two decades I've spent as a music journalist and critic, I've encountered hardcore gangsta rappers, slick R&B thugs, ditzy dance-pop divas and multiply-pierced and tattooed hard-rockers who seemingly had nothing in common sonically or stylistically--except that they all agreed on Michael Jackson.
Part of this is because these diverse music lovers grew up with Jackson, whether it was at the tail end of the Baby Boom, during the young singer's reign as an irrepressible bubblegum-pop star in the Jackson 5, or later on, during the ascendance of Generation X in the '80s, a decade he defined as a ubiquitous presence on MTV and half a dozen radio formats after the phenomenal success of "Thriller."
If you're of a certain age, to disavow the importance of Jackson now is to dismiss everything you hold as unique and distinctive about your youth. But his death doesn't resonate only because of nostalgia.
To this day, whenever an ambitious artist enters the recording studio and attempts to blend funk, soul, R&B, disco, jazz, rock and hip-hop, the best parts of Jackson's recorded legacy stand as a guiding beacon. "You can see his influence in his sister Janet, in Justin Timberlake, Usher, Britney Spears, and in Jennifer Lopez and Mariah Carey," superstar producer and Arista Records chief Antonio "L.A." Reid wrote in 2004. "A world without Michael Jackson would be a very, very different world."
Many of those who knew him portrayed a humble and self-effacing man when they spoke to the obituary writers. Audio engineer and record producer Bruce Swedien, who worked with Jackson on "Thriller" and many other recordings, told National Public Radio, "Michael was quiet and unassuming in the studio, and if you weren't aware of what was going on, you almost wouldn't know what we were doing."
In a prepared statement, Paul McCartney, a one-time collaborator turned rival (having been outbid by Jackson for control of the Beatles' catalog), said, "He was a massively talented boy man with a gentle soul."
But Jackson wasn't quiet, gentle or boyish when arguing for his own place in history. In fact, through the quarter-century since "Thriller," he flaunted an ego that seemed boundless, and which could be ugly and unsettling.
For the cover of his 1995 album "HIStory," one of only two albums Jackson managed to release in the last 18 years, the star chose cover art depicting him as an enormous statue towering over a turbulent landscape while wearing militaristic garb complete with machine-gun ammunition belts. It was based, he said, on a sculpture in Prague that set the record as the world's largest statue of Joseph Stalin.
Meanwhile, on the title track of that album, the star used musical samples to equate his talents as a songwriter with those of the great composers Beethoven and Mussorgsky and historical audio clips to invite comparisons of his accomplishments with those of Charles Lindbergh, Lou Gehrig, Robert Kennedy, Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
The most devoted acolyte would be hard-pressed to make the case that Jackson had as great an impact on the world as Dr. King. Which brings us back to the question of where the musician does fit in the history books.
The singular success of "Thriller" makes it easy to forget that Jackson's canon actually is much skimpier than those of Sinatra, Presley, the Beatles or any other superstar who had such a massive impact on the culture. After the Jackson 5, he spent the first seven years of his solo career trying to find his voice. He produced his masterpiece, "Off the Wall," in 1979, followed by two strong discs, though "Thriller" was overrated and "Bad" (1987) was overhyped. That's a total of three keepers out of 10 solo albums.
During the last 20 years of his career, Jackson barely performed live in the United States, and his recordings went from being merely disappointing to being downright embarrassing. The last two, "HIStory" and "Invincible" (2001), were dominated by songs boasting a weird and disturbing mix of messianic posturing, persecution complex, paranoia and obsessive concern for what one of his tunes called "all the lost children."
The star excoriated the media for reveling in the scandalous charges that he'd had sexual relations with underage boys. "Stop maliciously attacking my integrity," Jackson whined in "Privacy," while in "Tabloid Junkie," he sneered, "With your pen you torture men/You'd crucify the Lord." Yet at the same time, he seemed incapable of singing about anything else.
Nothing can ever be predicted with certainty in a world as tumultuous as pop music. But in the end, if I had to hazard a guess, I would bet that aspiring young musicians will still be finding inspiration in the best grooves from "Off the Wall," "Thriller" and "Bad" half a century from now, and that the songs of the Jackson 5 will still make even the most self-conscious hipster grin and bound onto the dance floor.
But with the passage of time, as more details of the travails of Jackson's final years become public, the songs from the last phase of his career will only become more troubling as desperate cries for help from a talented man quite literally melting down in full view of the world. And every bit as loud as his music will be a life story that stands as a cautionary tale about the debilitating, corrosive and possibly lethal power of fame.