By Hank Stuever and Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 26, 2009
Michael Jackson, 50, died yesterday in Los Angeles as sensationally as he lived, as famous as a human being can get. He was a child Motown phenomenon who grew into a moonwalking megastar, the self-anointed King of Pop who sold 750 million records over his career and enjoyed worldwide adoration.
But with that came the world's relentless curiosity, and Mr. Jackson was eventually regarded as one of show business's legendary oddities, hopping from one public relations crisis to another.
In the end there were two sides to the record: The tabloid caricature and the provocative, genre-changing musical genius that his fans will always treasure. There were those whose devotion knew no bounds, who visited the gates of his private ranch north of Santa Barbara, Calif., arriving at Neverland on pilgrimages from Europe and Asia, and who were among the first to flock to UCLA Medical Center as news of his death spread yesterday afternoon. Those were the same kind of fans who camped out at the Santa Barbara Superior Courthouse, to show their support during his 2005 trial. They released doves and wept when he was acquitted.
Then there was the other kind of fan, who preferred to keep memories of the singer locked firmly in his 1980s prime: Today's young adults all have memories of being toddlers and grade-schoolers who moonwalked across their mother's just mopped kitchen floors. Even the hardest rockers will easily confess to the first album they ever bought: "Thriller."
"I am just dev-as-tated," said Bridgette Cooper, 44, of Mitchellville, who was driving her children to math tutoring when her 12-year-old got the news by text. "I don't ever remember not loving him. I have been a fan forever. Even through the turmoil and the public spectacle, I still loved him and his music."
Mr. Jackson's death set off an instant media frenzy befitting the later chapters of his celebrityhood. The singer suffered an apparent heart attack at one of his residences in Bel-Air. Paramedics said Jackson was not breathing when they arrived at 12:26 p.m. Pacific time. The singer was brought to the UCLA Medical Center at 1:14 p.m. PDT and pronounced dead at 2:26 (5:26 Eastern).
Web sites began reporting that the singer had been taken to the hospital. Soon, streets in the Westwood neighborhoods around the hospital were clogged with traffic as crowds of onlookers formed, much as they did wherever the singer had appeared. Soon enough, they were dancing and playing Mr. Jackson's music, as a helicopter flew away with his body, en route to the coroner. All around the world, from Los Angeles to Adams Morgan to Times Square to Tokyo and beyond, people cued up Mr. Jackson's songs -- some digging out cassettes and LPs.
Mr. Jackson's brother, Jermaine, told reporters that "it is believed [Mr. Jackson] suffered cardiac arrest" and that the star's personal physician had tried to revive him. Jermaine Jackson then asked for something his family is unlikely to get in the next several days: privacy. "And may Allah be with you, Michael, always," he said.
"For Michael to be taken away from us so suddenly at such a young age, I just don't have the words," producer Quincy Jones said. "To this day, the music we created together on 'Off the Wall,' 'Thriller' and 'Bad' is played in every corner of the world and the reason for that is because he had it all . . . talent, grace, professionalism and dedication. He was the consummate entertainer and his contributions and legacy will be felt upon the world forever. I've lost my little brother today, and part of my soul has gone with him."
"On the one hand, it's shocking," said Alan Light, a journalist who has edited Spin and Vibe magazines. "On the other, everybody had the sense that there was not going to be a happy ending to this story. I don't know what other final chapter there was going to be. . . . It's almost impossible to overstate the impact he had on popular music and popular culture. He really defined what the music video could be. He was the ultimate crossover figure, bringing black music and rock-and-roll together. He is someone who will be remembered as an absolute superstar. He may have lost some of his popularity in the United States, but he remained a superstar in corners of the world not visited by other artists."
Mr. Jackson's career began as a family business in Gary, Ind. As the Jackson 5, the group moved in a comparatively short time from local talent contests to national stardom, with the encouragement of established artists including Gladys Knight. Driven by their father in a borrowed Volkswagen van, the Jackson 5 appeared in Chicago, at New York's Apollo Theater and as the opening act for the Temptations and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. At Knight's urging, Motown owner Berry Gordy signed the group to a contract in 1968.
Two years later, when Michael was 12, the Jackson 5 had four No. 1 hits, including "ABC" (which won a Grammy Award as best pop song) "I Want You Back" and "I'll Be There." Under Gordy's intensive grooming, the Jackson 5 achieved an astounding degree of mass popularity among black and white audiences. Their concerts caused near-riots, with young Michael becoming an unlikely prepubescent sex symbol and a Saturday morning cartoon.
Mr. Jackson began to emerge as a solo artist with the album "Got to Be There" (1971), which included the hit song "Rockin' Robin."
At 15, his voice broke, giving him a range from soprano to tenor. At the same time, the Jacksons began to chafe under the strict artistic control of Gordy and demanded greater artistic freedom. In 1975, the Jacksons left Motown for CBS's Epic label, but Gordy managed to keep the rights to the Jackson 5 name. Michael and his brothers continued performing as the Jacksons, and in 1978 Michael sang and danced as the Scarecrow in the film "The Wiz," an all-black remake "The Wizard of Oz" starring one of Jackson's idols, Diana Ross.
Jones, who produced "The Wiz's" soundtrack, agreed to produce Mr. Jackson's next solo album. Their first collaboration, "Off the Wall" (1979), sold 9 million copies and had four Top 10 hits. In 1982, Mr. Jackson released his next, "Thriller," which was also produced by Jones. It became an instant phenomenon, selling more than 40 million copies globally and yielding seven Top 10 hits, including "Billie Jean," "Beat It" and the title track.
"Thriller" won eight Grammy Awards, but it was Mr. Jackson's breathtaking performances on music videos accompanying the album that became instantly memorable. He choreographed the exciting dance routines, which featured his showstopping moonwalk, acrobatic moves and uncanny precision. He started wearing a white glove on one hand, which became one of his sartorial signatures. Several guest stars, including Paul McCartney, Eddie Van Halen and Vincent Price, appeared on videos from the album.
His 1987 album, "Bad," sold 30 million copies and produced five No. 1 singles, including the title track, "I Just Can't Stop Loving You" and "Man in the Mirror." Videos from the album dominated MTV. By the time of his 1991 album, "Dangerous," Mr. Jackson had parted ways with producer Jones. Although the album sold 32 million copies, it was seen as something of an artistic letdown.
In his 30s, Mr. Jackson started to become more enigma than entertainer. He straightened his hair and nose, beginning a process of almost surreal self-reconstruction. In time, Jackson's skin turned from brown to a pale, ghostly white, his nose shrank from repeated plastic surgery, and his frame remained painfully gaunt. He wore outlandish costumes in public, spoke in an airy, high-pitched whisper.
His world devolved into a series of tabloid headlines that reported rumors or facts about everything from his curious pet ownership to the plastic surgeries that drastically changed him. He built a private playland, the sprawling Neverland, replete with an amusement park and zoo, to which he invited scores of underprivileged children. He was accused of abusing a child in the 1990s (a case which was settled out of court in 1994 for a reported amount between $15 million and $24 million).
For all his impact on popular music, Mr. Jackson's life seemed to play out as a metaphor on the delusions and cruelty of fame. He was unlucky in the art of public relations, and sometimes he was just unlucky, as when pyrotechnics set his hair on fire during the filming of a Pepsi commercial.
Other misfortunes he seemed to bring on himself -- and theories about his behavior were never in short supply. People loved to think they had cracked the mystery of Michael: He wanted his face to resemble Liz Taylor's. He hated his appearance because his father and brothers used to tease him. He was repressed, he was asexual, he was an addict, he was a pervert, he was from outer space, he was a genius, he was stupid, he was insane. The truth was never known and Jackson recoiled from media scrutiny, and largely thwarted the assistance of image experts, who displeased him.
In the early 2000s his fortunes and recording contracts waned, and an album, 2001's "Invincible," essentially tanked, selling only 10 million copies worldwide. Mr. Jackson lashed out at his record label and claimed, at an appearance with the Rev. Al Sharpton, that he was the victim of racism. The hits kept not coming, but the headlines did: In November 2002, Jackson appeared to dangle his blanketed infant son over a Berlin hotel balcony while greeting fans and paparazzi below, which brought outrage.
He was briefly married to Elvis Presley progeny Lisa Marie Presley -- a largely symbolic union of pop dynasties. After that marriage was over, he became a father to three children, whose paternal and maternal origins created much speculation: Prince Michael I, who is now 12, and Paris Michael, 11. His youngest child, Prince Michael II (nicknamed Blanket as a baby), is 7. (He is also survived by his siblings and his parents, Joe and Katherine Jackson.)
"I must confess I am not surprised by today's tragic news," Michael Levine, a Los Angeles publicist who represented Mr. Jackson when the singer was accused of child molestation in the 1990s, said in a statement. "Michael has been on an impossibly difficult and often self-destructive journey for years. His talent was unquestionable but so too was his discomfort with the norms of the world. A human simply can not withstand this level of prolonged stress."
Mr. Jackson was planning to appear in a sold-out series of concerts in London next month that would have run until March. Promoters of the concerts had recently said that the singer had passed a physical examination to assuage any doubts he was ready for a comeback.
But what sort of comeback? It seemed increasingly futile. Michael Jackson's many observers (a media cottage industry all its own) generally regard a 2003 television interview he gave as the beginning of his end. In that interview, with British journalist Martin Bashir, Mr. Jackson appeared holding hands with a young boy who had cancer. Something seemed weird. Something always seemed weird.
That particular weirdness eventually led Mr. Jackson back to court in the spring of 2005, after the boy accused the pop star of molesting him. Mr. Jackson's fragility was never more pronounced than in that Santa Maria courthouse. Here at last was the daily, up-close look at a withered man in a mirror, under the courtroom's fluorescent lights. He was always polite, and always sad. Mr. Jackson was acquitted and spent the rest of his days on the move, on jets and in hotels, dodging bankruptcy proceedings, as if he were on the run from not only what he was, but what the world made him.
Staff reporters Ashley Surdin in Los Angeles, Adam Bernstein, Paul Farhi, Avis Thomas-Lester, Lisa de Moraes and Keith Alexander contributed to this report.