Michael Jackson's Musical Legacy Will Endure

A glimpse into Michael Jackson's more than 40-year career, from the height of musical stardom to his bizarre personal life and sex scandal.
By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 27, 2009

Try, for a moment, to separate the art from the artist. Consider Michael Jackson's entertainment proffer in a vacuum-sealed space.

In that bubble, where Bubbles and all the peculiarities and plastic surgeries matter not one whit, you will find a man -- and, if you go back far enough into the archives, a child -- who was unquestionably one of the most transcendent performers in popular music.

He was Elvis with an androgynous tenor, Sinatra with a moonwalk and killer pop instincts, Prince with more mass appeal, John, Paul, George and Ringo with high-water pants, white socks and a single, sequined glove.

Jackson was a singular talent, even if he was sometimes derivative. He sang like Frankie Lymon by way of Smokey Robinson and Diana Ross, though his soulful, ingratiating voice sounded original and distinctive; to this day, it remains one of the most easily recognizable voices in the world.

Dancing with the explosiveness of James Brown and the smooth grace of Fred Astaire, Jackson was simply mesmerizing whenever he moved across a stage or TV screen -- never more so than on the 1983 special "Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever." The star-studded concert featured some of Hitsville USA's most legendary figures, but the night belonged to Jackson by virtue of his electrifying performance of "Billie Jean."

Who cared if he was lip-syncing? Those moves!! When he unleashed the gravity-defying moonwalk roughly 3 1/2 minutes in, it was over: Jackson had had his Elvis-(or the Beatles)-on-the-Ed-Sullivan-Show moment, producing the defining performance of his career.

It didn't hurt that "Billie Jean" was a truly potent single, a state-of-the art song built around a sharp, simple drum pattern, an indelible bass line and an undeniable melody. Jackson sang it mostly in that high, feathery tenor of his, but he occasionally slipped into falsetto, mostly to add his signature "HEE hee" vocal licks. The lyrics were no laughing matter, though, as Jackson was sneering about paternity suits.

His star power was staggering from the very start: The Jackson 5 crashed onto the pop radar in 1969 with "I Want You Back," an exuberant song about a guy who's having second thoughts about dumping his lover. Never mind that Jackson wasn't even a teenager when he recorded the lead vocal, and that he had a child's soprano; he sang it convincingly, his pleading voice exploding from the speakers.

When the brothers went on TV to sing the up-tempo song, the cherubic Michael was front and center as the featured singer who happened to be a dazzling dancing machine. How could you not be hooked?

As a child star, Jackson was a preternaturally gifted vocalist who had advanced emotional range, whether he was singing the aching, bereft "Never Can Say Goodbye" or the tender promise of a ballad, "I'll Be There."

When he finally went solo, his lyrical themes shifted, becoming more confrontational, hardened and paranoid -- an apparent side effect of not actually having a childhood to enjoy.

But more striking was how his sound developed.

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