In death, maybe more so, MJ is the King of Pop

FOR AN ARTIST like Michael Jackson, death represents the ultimate career move. Granted, that's harsh to say. But it's also true.

As happened with prior pop legends like Elvis Presley, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix, the sad passing of the man finally allows us to put aside all the notions of "freakiness" that took our eyes off the prize for at least the last decade of his life.

We'll finally be able to forgive and eventually forget the sagas of Michael's alleged moral transgressions, his reputation for insane indulgence and plastic surgery, his peculiar child/man/motherly identity crises.

In fact, we may even come to feel guilty that we devoured all that gossip whole, that we made him the brunt of so many jokes that must have crushed his fragile soul, that sent him into hiding and probably hooked him on some form or another of pain killer.

In the end, what will remain - not in some cryogenic vault but on easily accessible CDs, downloads and DVDs - will be all the art. It'll be frozen in time, the Michael Jackson forever in his prime who captivated us first as a child singer and dancer, then later as a surprisingly deep and dramatic songwriter and music-video visionary.

While many radio stations have virtually banned him in recent years, I'd wager beacoup bucks that every broadcast outlet in the land will be playing MJ today, and hailing him again, as "The King of Pop" (a title bestowed on him by his friend Elizabeth Taylor.)

Some will start all over again with the simple, bubble-gummish joys of "ABC" and "I Want You Back" that he trilled in that piercing, squeeky-clean kid voice as the little front "man" of the Jackson Five - the family troupe that roared out of Gary, Ind., in the late 1960s.

Listen to his air of utter confidence and control, even then, or watch him spinning like a pint-sized James Brown or Jackie Wilson in clips of the J5 performing on "The Ed Sullivan Show." What was the secret to his utter air of ease and confidence at such a young age?

"Practice, practice and more practice," he'd tell me in a chat, a few years later. But little did anyone know then how severely and exactly his father, Joe, had whipped Michael and his brothers into shape, and the psychic toll it would take on his life.

Not enough attention will be paid today, I'm guessing, to his first major contributions as a teenage songwriter to The Jacksons, as they'd come to be known after splitting with Motown and signing with Philadelphia International Records circa 1975, and later Epic Records. Yet, that's when I started taking the guy seriously, with early dance-pop glories like "Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)" and the twitchy, anthemic "Can You Feel It."

By contrast, maybe too much attention will be paid, at least today, to "Thriller," his 1982 second solo-album collaboration with producer Quincy Jones, and the one that made Michael a household name from here to Outer Mongolia. The set sold better than any other album in history, with estimates as high as 109 million copies.

Maybe it's blasphemy, or burn-out factor, but, in retrospect, I actually prefer Michael and Q's lighter, jazzier predecessor "Off the Wall."

"Thriller" clung to the top of the Billboard album chart for almost a year and a half, and also remained unavoidable on radio and the then-nascent MTV. The music-video outlet had previously snubbed black artists but couldn't deny Michael's sound and his visionary, high-budget videos, which were as stylishly choreographed as a Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly movie musical.

But songs like "Thriller" and "Beat It" eventually beat me down. The Wierd Al Yankovic parodies didn't help, and then there was the disillusioning news, whispered in my ear, that even Michael Jackson had felt compelled to hire the biggest guys in radio payola to keep greasing the turntable wheels. As if his talent and clout wasn't enough?

Still, I don't think I'll ever tire of watching Jackson's gravity defying moonwalk dancing performance of "Billie Jean" on the "Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever" special (first shown March 25, 1983). That performance made me (and some 47 million other viewers) think that the man truly was heir to Astaire.

Michael was a man of many voices, at turns androgynously girly and macho growling (the latter usually accompanied by grabbing of the crotch), oddly hiccupy/agitated and tinged with a bitter blue sadness, depending on the theme he was exploring.

After venturing down to Washington, D.C., to catch a performance on his late-'80s "Bad" tour, I came to understand how the themes of entrapment and paranoia wiggled into his work. A huge posse of poshly attired Jackson sycophants - filling at least two floors of a luxury D.C. hotel - were living off the guy's largesse. Talk about being generous to a fault.

He probably thought it was hip to be hard (hey, rap was threatening to topple him from his throne), but I think the world will remember Jackson most fondly for the tender themes of brotherhood, sharing and world peace he would espouse in pop/gospel anthems like the landmark "We Are the World," the reflective "Man in the Mirror," "Will You Be There," "Heal the World," and "Keep the Faith" and "Gone Too Soon," a tribute to his AIDS victim buddy Ryan White.

And I'm now convinced that it was his shared sense of social responsibility, as much as his interest in investing wisely, that persuaded Jackson to buy the song catalogue of the Beatles - ironically, the only thing of value he still "owned" when he died.

From all reports, the comeback tour Michael was preparing - to start July 13 with an unprecedented 50 sold-out shows at the O2 Arena, in London - would have been a true spectacular, with dozens of set changes, a huge support cast and Michael singing and dancing up a storm. Geez, we needed this.

The music world is so fractionalized today, so lacking in guiding lights that everyone knows, shares and rallies behind in common. Even though 14 years have passed since his last notable hit album, the double disc "HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I," and eight since his last, his less than "Invincible" collection, there are still no other contenders to the throne, chafing at the bit with armies of supporters. That title as King of Pop was Michael's to claim again, even if he never came up with another note of new music.

But now that title really will be his, in death instead of life. "Thriller" and various Michael Jackson greatest-hits albums will surely be back at the top of the charts next week. And I won't be at all surprised if "lost" albums - work previously rejected by this perfectionist - suddenly materialize to taunt and tantalize us. *

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