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Monday, June 29, 2009

The King of Pop's legacy


By Eduan Maggo, Copy editor
Published: June 27, 2009, 22:43

In four decades, Michael Jackson changed the face of popular culture forever, lending his eccentricity to his art.

"And now everyone's a fan."

This status update on Facebook captures the feeling of many Michael Jackson fans. Let's face it, the man the world has come to know as the King of Pop hadn't been so popular in the autumn of his years. The question we must now ask is, will he be remembered for his famous eccentricities, the life that, on the whole, was miserable - or for the undeniable impact he has had on almost every realm of popular culture?

Born Michael Joseph Jackson on August 29, 1958 the Gloved One was an entertainer for almost his whole life. The man now understood to be a troubled genius had his skill and talent honed by a father who relentlessly pushed his offspring to excel.

A musical prodigy, Jackson became an instant star at age 11. Then a fresh-faced pre-teen, Jackson quickly emerged as the leading talent in a uniquely gifted family. His destinctive voice and delivery on songs like ABC and I'll Be There catapulted the band of brothers to stardom and The Jackson 5 achieved the unprecedented feat of four consecutive No 1 singles.

The Jackson children were driven hard; rehearsals and recording sessions got brutal. Physical and mental abuse was not unusual, as was name-calling, Jackson often stated.

The price the brothers paid was heavy; the impact they, a group of teenagers, had on the musical and social scene of the 1970s was tremendous. Never before had a group consisting of black male musicians had such crossover appeal: their first four singles all went to No 1 in the mainstream charts. The Jacksons paved the way for black groups singing R&B-derived tunes to be accepted by the industry as major players, not niche talents. Jackson himself would later score firsts in opening up the mainstream of music to a solo black artist.

This early success had a profound effect on the man who would go on to give the world the Moonwalk. For insight into his tortured soul, one needn't look too far, since the singer-songwriter had penned it himself.

Every artist can be defined by one song. Michael Jackson's is the lesser-known Childhood. Fittingly off the album HIStory, the song is in part biographical and references Jackson's difficult years growing up: "Have you seen my Childhood?/ I'm searching for the world that I come from/ 'Cause I've been looking around/ In the lost and found of my heart.../ No one understands me/ They view it as such strange eccentricities.../ 'Cause I keep kidding around/ Like a child, but pardon me..."

Wacko Jacko, as he's been labelled, went on to write: "People say I'm not okay/ 'Cause I love such elementary things.../ It's been my fate to compensate/ for the Childhood/ I've never known..."

Jackson was always destined for solo success, and he was intent on taking the world with him. He evolved and the world adapted; Jackson changed his face, and the face of music along with it.

Jackson infused soul and R&B with hip-hop and rock, creating a sound that crossed the colour barrier. Music on television exposed artists to a wider audience, and Jackson as an artist attracted fans from all walks.

Even before his physical transformation, his music was neither black nor white.

Jackson's solo career burst coincided with the rise of music videos. Jackson was on the cusp of this new genre, which he exploited fully.

Popular culture had switched on to the idea of watching the radio, and he gave people something to watch - music as a short film. Jackson explored this idea with groundbreaking videos like Thriller, expressing himself both musically and through film.

By pushing this genre, he became the first true superstar, as he could show off his singing, dancing and acting talent.

The downside to his newfound fame was that his social life followed his career into the stratosphere. He had attuned the public to watching him, and watch they did, even as his personal life spiralled out of control. Every day we could tune in to watch Jackson's train derail as his position floundered in the '90s.

Yet he remained popular, if infamously so. The masses remained tuned in to see what new heights he would reach, if not artistically, then in personal lows.

A whole generation had grown up seeing him first on television, then on computer screens on the internet and now on their mobile phones and Twitter.

So the King of Pop may have given the music industry its first Royal Family when he married Lisa Marie Presley, the Princess of Rock 'n' Roll, but all we saw and wanted to see was a recluse who had completely lost it. Wacko Jacko may have brought the final frontier a little closer with the Moonwalk, but he was essentially portrayed as a freak of nature. The child star had risen throughout the '80s, the '90s saw a man increasingly seeming out of touch with reality and by the Noughties he'd reached the apex of eccentricity.

If video killed the radio star, then Jackson with his short films was its executioner. But this fact was often conveniently locked up in a closet of the past; forgotten, along with his single white glove and black loafers.

With 13 No 1 singles behind his name, Jackson was a cultural icon, albeit a tainted one. Yes, he may have sold an estimated 750 million records worldwide and became one of only a handful of artists to be inducted twice into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But he slowly turned from talented young man into a social outcast.

The Guinness Book of World Records recognised Jackson as the Most Successful Entertainer of All Time, and his ground-breaking Thriller as the Biggest Selling Album of All Time. Yet Jackson became a victim of his success.

Jackson may have won 13 Grammy Awards and received the American Music Award's Artist of the Century Award. His sound, style and dance moves may have inspired subsequent generations of pop, soul, R&B and hip-hop artists, yet he was and will remain a fallen hero - even an anti-hero, some would say.

In recent years, Jackson toured abroad and attended to his charitable foundation, Heal the World. Then, last year, after years out of the spotlight, he announced a series of concerts as his curtain call - This is It. It sold 75,000 tickets in four hours.

Never gonna' happen, the naysayers said. And everyone agreed, because we'd gotten used to seeing Michael Jackson as nothing but a failure.

Then the man-child died. "Before you judge me, try hard to love me/ The painful youth I've had," again on Childhood. Jackson's success came at a price. A price his legacy will bear forever, despite the burgeoning load on the MJ fanwagon.

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