The dissection and autopsy of Michael Jackson’s life and career will be duly carried out by sources more dispassionate and morbid than me, so I’ll try to be brief.
Dude was weird, no question. But nice, friendly, polite. At least to outsiders. That may seem like a funny thing to talk about, but you’d be surprised at how many famous people (especially the young ones) are complete jerks.
As for the weird, you’d be weird, too, if you had the upbringing he did. I experienced my own bit of precocious youth pressure back in the days of The Short Pants, trying to balance “academic excellence” with “making hit records” and chasing girls. But it was nothing compared to what he went through. The awful family situation. Worse was the early success and life in the spotlight.
I keep thinking about this Rolling Stone article I read back in the late 80s before “Bad” came out. The writer had followed Jackson around and had noticed a Post-It note in his bathroom that just had “100” written on it. (Jackson was way into the motivational Post-It notes).
He asked what that meant, and Jackson replied “I am going to sell 100 million copies of ‘Bad’ – that’s what it means.”
At that time, Thriller had sold about 40 million, making it (for a long time) by far the biggest-selling album ever. It had cameo appearances by Eddie Van Halen, Paul McCartney, and Vincent Price. It was promoted with a fantastic live performance broadcast on TV and backed up by a series of groundbreaking videos. And it hit at a time when the record industry badly needed a modern, catchy, optimistic record with broad appeal.
Thriller would go on to sell 100 million copies.
In short, it wasn’t just a once-in-a-lifetime event, it was a once-in-an-industry event. And Michael Jackson was convinced his next record (ominously named “Bad”) was going to do 2.5 times the business.
Kid stars have it the worst – they grow up knowing nothing but the spotlight. They’re forced to grow up in front of everyone, fumbling for new identities as teens, young adults, and finally, mature adults. I don’t know that Michael ever acknowledged he was getting older. The pressure he placed on himself was enormous.
He didn’t just want to be the best singer and dancer, or write big hits (and unlike many pop stars who take publishing/writing credit in exchange for recording, Michael did write many of his hits - he wrote the main riff for “Beat It”, among other things). He wanted to transform himself and went far to do it. I’m sure the physical, mental and emotional pain he kept himself in was not pleasant.
The kids. Nobody but Michael knows for sure what went on. But when you get to be that rich and that famous, and you’ve been that way your whole life, you can’t trust anyone over 13. Every time you allow yourself to meet someone new, you’re asking “Are they interested in me, the person, or my fame? Or my money? Or something else? Is this a trap?” Hanging out with kids too young to understand his life was the closest he could get to real human interaction. I’m sure he knew it was sort of messed up, too. Think about what that knowledge must have done to him as well.
I hope he is finally free of his demons and those goddamn Post-It notes. If nothing else, he’s at least free of the spotlight.
When I think of Michael Jackson, I think of a summer dance in 1982. His voice echoing off the walls of a Duke University gymnasium, as I danced into the night. I've never been sweatier, funkier, or more lost in the music.
Every night I step up to the microphone and The Pants fire into another song, I am chasing that one moment.
Wanna Be Startin' Something
Shake Your Body Down To The Ground
Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough
Leave Me Alone