His legacy will be as messy, as cluttered with oddities and accusations as his life: a dark, spinning carnival ride we peeked at through our fingers. But whether you adored Michael Jackson throughout his 50 years — or left him after the Elephant Man's bones or the tabloid horrors or the nose that became an electrical socket — this much is true:
History, as history tends to do with iconoclasts who provide great spinning flashes of joy, will remember the King of Pop well.
In fact, it's already happening.
You might recoil at this notion, and that's fine, totally understandable. But you can't deny that the kid — and he was always a kid, for better or worse — was incandescent, otherworldly, a black Fred Astaire who shattered sales records and racial barriers, especially those at MTV, the greatest pop cultural force of the 20th century. Birthed during cable television's infancy, the music-video channel was primarily a vehicle for white artists. Then came 1983, and Billie Jean and Beat It and Thriller — the last being an album, a video, a zipperiffic fashion movement.
One white glove for all.
Much of pop music is disposable nowadays, not meant to last longer than a million downloads on iTunes. But Jackson's music lasts. With the exception of Stevie Wonder, there's never been a more prodigious pop-music wunderkind. He was the adorable dervish from Gary, Ind., the smiling runt who led the Jackson 5, which was not just the greatest boy band of all time, but a black boy band beloved by all races.
Jackson's solo career started weak, and music-wise, it ended poorly. But in the middle there? Wow. Off the Wall, from 1979, was a big fat revolutionary hit, a beat-mad wake-up call, one of the great dance albums.
And then, of course, Thriller, the best-selling album of all time, which would be an obituary starter for any person other than someone as complex as Michael Jackson. Thriller is ingrained in our DNA, and you can summon the street-strut beat of Billie Jean as easily as you can dial your own phone number. No need to go track-by-track on that one — there will be plenty of time for appreciation (and not-so-appreciation) in the days to come.
Then came August 1993, when it broke that the Los Angeles Police Department was investigating allegations that Jackson had molested a 13-year-old boy. Almost instantly, he went from Willy Wonka-esque freak — batty but benign — to a monster in Peter Pan's clothing.
Over the next decade, there was a sense among the general populace that it wasn't cool to praise Jackson — at least not out loud. But I was at more than a few clubs where, when the clock struck midnight, that hip-thrusty beat of Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' would kick in, and people would smile and move and sing in the dark, willing to forgive — or at least forget — because it was irresistible, life-affirming even.
This brings us back to his legacy and its endurance. Jackson recently embarked on a comeback, or at least planned one. He sold out 50 shows in London's giant O2 arena, and he sold that sucker out fast. His fans, a lot of fans, still cared — and this time, they cared out loud.
But it wasn't just overseas. I live on a street with dozens of kids, ranging from toddlers to teens. A few months ago, at a pool party, one of them brought up Michael Jackson. I had the videos and the CDs, so I brought them over. Yes, I felt a little weird about it, and I sensed unease in a few of the parents, a sense of Is this okay? But the looks on the kids' faces stopped that fast:
They were transfixed. None of them had been born in the '80s; only a few of them had seen any part of the '90s. But they watched the videos — especially that awesome zombie dance — over and over. As we were walking home, my 5-year-old daughter — who up to that point had defiantly refused to listen to anything her music-critic dad liked — turned to me and whispered: "Dad, do some girls think about being married to Michael Jackson?"
My daughter was smitten. And you know what? There was nothing wrong with that. She'll eventually hear stories about Jackson, the good ones and the nightmares, but something tells me she'll keep on dancing and loving him. And so will her children. Because Michael Jackson, the one history will remember best, was the very definition of alive.
Like Elvis. Like Sinatra.
Sean Daly can be reached at email@example.com/popmusic or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.