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The Daily Wildcat

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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    The last of the pop heroes

    It’s surprising how much Michael Jackson’s death affected us. He hadn’t had a real hit in years, and nothing he’s recorded since 1987’s “”Bad”” made much of an impact on anyone. Most of us regarded him as beyond redemption – a pathetic self-parody of his former self and a man of questionable morality.

    But that isn’t all Jackson was. He was the last of the great, larger-than-life pop figures, an original who towered over everyone around him and made even his nearest commercial rivals seem a little small-time. He was a man of such oversized neuroses as to make today’s heart-on-sleeve indie singers seem like puny pretenders. He was also immensely talented. No one ever made it so big; no one ever threw it away so spectacularly.

    In some ways, the figure Jackson most resembled was Elvis Presley. While Presley launched the entire rock era, Jackson ushered in the age of the corporate pop star. Tour vans were replaced by limousines. Concerts became overblown brouhahas that exalted the star over the audience, while ticket prices soared to the point where most people – including, perhaps, most of Jackson’s own fans – couldn’t afford to attend them. A star’s success was no longer measured by talent or even cultural impact, but by how many records he had sold. The line between pop music and big business disappeared.

    It didn’t even seem like a betrayal when Jackson turned his greatest single, “”Billie Jean,”” into a commercial jingle for Pepsi-Cola, “”A Whole New Generation.”” In fact, that commercial – which showed Jackson suddenly appearing on an ordinary street and dancing with his fans – may have been Jackson’s finest moment, the moment that went straight to the core of his appeal. He never looked cooler, or more uncannily mysterious.

    Jackson was like Presley in other ways. Both were musical prodigies: Jackson was 9 when he made his first recording, Presley 19. Both presented themselves as confident, flashy rebels on stage; both were shy, retreating characters in person. Both lost their way, stumbling through a final decade of self-parody, eclipsing their one-time genius with their bloated performances and dismal revelations of their private flaws. If stories of Jackson’s dependence on prescription drugs are true, then there’s one final tragic likeness.

    In 1982, the fury and paranoia of “”Billie Jean”” seemed like an act, another hat worn by a master showman. We know now that these demons were real, that they kept Jackson from ever knowing peace. Plagued by health problems and a long string of surgeries, Jackson’s appearance altered so drastically that he no longer resembled himself. Then came the ghastly accusations that made Jackson a pariah for the last two decades of his life. His concerts still sold out and his every move still made headlines; at his death he was preparing to perform no less than 50 “”comeback”” shows in London. But he was now as despised as he had been loved. Only his most devoted fans regarded him as anything but a nut.

    Now it’s all over – the rumors, the sold-out concerts, the accusations, and private anguish we can only guess at. All that remains is the music, and a memory of a young man who once moved in a way that no one had ever seen before.

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