Before declaring himself King of Pop, he was

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A shrine of flowers, candles, and memorabilia covers Michael Jackson's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Friday.

Dan DeLuca is The Inquirer's music critic

When Elvis Presley died in 1977, back when Michael Jackson was an ambitious teenager with a bright future ahead of him, rock critic Lester Bangs famously wrote: "I can guarantee you one thing; we will never agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis."

But more than three decades later, the legendary scribe's proclamation about a pop icon being a unifying cultural force is ripe to be reapplied. Pin it on the self-proclaimed "King of Pop," who followed the King to an early grave when he died in Los Angeles on Thursday at age 50.

In 2009, this much can be said with conviction: Music fans will never again agree on anything the way they once agreed on Michael Jackson.

Despite the outpouring of grief and adoration for Jackson on display around the world, around the Web, and on top of the iTunes and Amazon sales charts this week, the one-gloved moonwalker has not been occupying a place anywhere near the center of the pop universe for the last two decades.

But in his megaselling 1980s heyday, and before he saw fit to proclaim himself as such, Jackson truly was the King of Pop.

Depending on who's counting, The Eagles' Greatest Hits, 1971-1975, which came out in 1976, may have overtaken Jackson's Thriller as the biggest-selling album of all time. But the California country-rock Eagles are the slow and steady tortoise in the race. The sleek and sexy Thriller, produced by Quincy Jones, was exactly what its title implies: a lightning-fast hare that sold 25 million copies within just a few years of its 1982 release.

Fired up by MTV, the music-video channel that used Jackson just as much as he used it, the album was a multimedia blitzkrieg that sent seven singles to the pop Top Ten and achieved a level of cultural ubiquity the pop world has not seen since.

That is partly because Jackson, in the years before his appearance became grotesque and his image was permanently soiled by allegations of child molestation, was such an enormous talent and uniquely complex figure.

Androgynous to the point of being borderline asexual, he nonetheless threw himself into his performances with a highly sexualized passion that was electrifying to witness. He took his private obsessions and, with a mix of musical genius and a flair for show-biz spectacle, made them our own. Take a look at a YouTube video of Jackson performing "Billie Jean" on the 1983 TV show Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever, and just try to turn away.

Brilliantly using a basic-cable TV channel to sell his music to the masses in the pre-Internet era, Jackson dominated a pop moment that would last a decade. Besides Thriller's record-setting sales pace, 1979's Off the Wall and 1987's Bad sold seven and eight million copies, respectively.

By the '90s, though, when he was trying to maintain his pop preeminence - long before file-sharing and iTunes came along to finish the job - the music marketplace had been fractured to the point that no single figure could stand alone at the center.

If it wasn't Kurt Cobain elbowing MJ out of the frame in the '90s, it was Alanis Morissette, or, as he was then known, Snoop Doggy Dogg.

And no matter what grandiose marketing maneuvers Jackson made - whether it was marrying Presley's daughter, Lisa Marie, in 1994, or depicting himself as a sculpted giant modeled after the Colossus of Rhodes on the cover of the 1995 album HIStory: Past, Present and Future - he couldn't recapture the position he had held at the absolute center of pop culture.

But then, neither could anyone else. (And that includes Presley, whose stature as either King of Rock and Roll or Caucasian cultural appropriator made him an increasingly divisive figure in America's pop-culture tug of war.) Before the bottom fell out of CD sales, pop stars from Garth Brooks to 'N Sync still sold massive numbers of CDs in the '90s and early '00s. They did it, though, by saturating a burgeoning target market of country fans, or teen boy-band fans (and their moms), not by making the kind of accessible-to-anyone, rhythmically irresistible dance-pop that Jackson specialized in during the '80s. Back then, he had both the music and the marketing clout to make his dreams of unprecedented success come true.

That was a long time ago, for Jackson and the music business that has been so transformed since. But a funny thing happened in the last couple of decades, while Jackson was spending more time in the tabloids than on the pop charts: The music he made back then, which stood at the center of the pop universe, remained as universally appealing as ever.

Earlier this year at the South by Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas, Jones said, "Everywhere I go in the world - Shanghai, Abu Dhabi - at midnight, they play the music Michael and I made 30 years ago."

And as the global reaction to Jackson's death made clear, everyone around the world can agree that his is the right music to play, at the right time.

 


Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or ddeluca@phillynews.com.