By the time you read this, it won’t exactly be timely, but at this point, I can’t really fathom writing about anything else.
I vividly remember when I got Thriller. I was in a magazine sales contest to raise money for my school. I was in the fifth grade, and I sold enough magazine subscriptions to qualify for fourth place. The prize? I could pick out any album I wanted from some catalog they put in front of me. I didn’t hesitate. I saw MJ propped up there on his elbow, looking as cool as any human being could be, staring at me. “That one,” I said. Six-to-eight agonizing weeks later, I was dancing in my room, practicing my moonwalk and trying to hit that EEE-HEEE high note in Billie Jean.
That was also not long before the end of my fascination with MJ. Don’t get me wrong: everything pre-Thriller was great. The Jackson 5 stuff is more than epic.
But after Thriller, MJ became larger than the music. There was the Pepsi fire. The early plastic surgeries. The skin changes. The chimp. Debbie Rowe. Neverland. Bad. Dangerous. HIStory. Liz Taylor. Alfonso Ribiero. Corey Feldman. The Beatles catalog. The outfits. Lupus. Lisa Marie. The Elephant Man. Blanket.
…And then the allegations.
All of it was big. Bigger than royalty. Bigger than the ridiculous statues they plopped all over Europe to promote HIStory. And it was all way bigger than the music. The music waned. It petered out, alternating between heavy-handed racially-charged rhetoric and lackluster pop blandulum.
The spectacle betrayed the sound.
MJ wasn’t just a circus. He wasn’t just a freak. He became a religion of insanity. You can’t write this story. It’s too fantastical. No one would buy it for a moment. Yet here it happened, slowly unfolding right in front of us over the course of decades.
MJ captured a moment with Thriller. It was a concoction of perfect pop layered on top of serious soul. And it was exactly what the American music fan—indeed, any music lover in the world—needed when it literally blew the doors off of the music industry with a thunderclap even The Eagles couldn’t match. It all happened at once, and like a tremendous explosion, the vacuum behind it sucked the air out of everything.
MJ couldn’t ever catch it again. No one could. It was Jordan burying 63 against the Celtics in ’86. It was Elway’s second Ring. It was Elvis’ ’68 Comeback Special.
These are the moments that stand so much higher than the culmination of those that lead up to them that they eclipse everything else. MJ sought that high he achieved in Thriller for every moment thereafter.
And for every moment thereafter, he fell short. And sank deeper into a miasma of freakishness and garish pageantry.
MJ’s talent was undeniable. His mark, unforgettable. He’s indelibly imprinted on the nation’s psyche in much the same way his father-in-law is. But the greatest tragedy isn’t his passing…
It’s that his legacy, ultimately, will be so little about the music.