NEW YORK — Michael Jackson always was a bundle of contradictions.
Painfully shy in person, the man behind “Thriller,” the biggest-selling album in history, was a legendary dynamo in front of a crowd, raising the spectacle of pop concerts to a new level. Known for a lengthy string of upbeat pop hits both by himself on “Thriller” and with his brothers in the Jackson 5, he seemed increasingly sad and troubled in his personal life. A longtime supporter of children, the 50-year-old had been dogged for years by child molestation accusations, though he was eventually acquitted of all charges in a trial that played out as an international soap opera in 2005.
But maybe the biggest contradiction of all was that no matter how big the controversy that dogged him or how much financial adversity he faced, Michael Jackson always believed he would be able to come back. One day, he would be the King of Pop once again.
Jackson was in the midst of rehearsals for his latest — and with a potential haul of $100 million, possibly his greatest — comeback, when he collapsed at his Los Angeles home and eventually died of cardiac arrest Thursday afternoon.
He had been training with bodybuilder-actor Lou Ferrigno for the marathon run of 50 concerts at London’s O2 Arena, scheduled to start on July 13. For weeks, rumors of his demands for the shows — which sold out 800,000 tickets in five hours — had become regular fodder for the British tabloids. It was almost as if the previous failed comebacks and the years of controversies had never occurred.
Actor-singer Jamie Foxx told Extra that he hoped Jackson would be remembered as “the brilliant musician that he is and not the circus sideshow that has become his life over the last several years.”
Unfortunately, that won’t be possible. However, as the Rev. Al Sharpton said Thursday outside the Apollo Theater, Jackson’s death brought him praise from people “who wouldn’t go near him in the last several years.”
There is certainly plenty to praise. For many years, Michael Jackson was the biggest star in the world. Though he had grown up in the public eye with the Jackson 5 and helped build the Motown sound in the ‘70s with the sweet, innocent pop of “I Want You Back” and “ABC,” that was only a prelude for what would come when he went solo.
He broke every sales record with “Thriller” in 1982, which spent 37 weeks at No. 1, sold 104 million copies worldwide, and sent seven of its nine songs into the Top 10. He popularized the moonwalk, commanded ratings-busting TV specials and changed the course of pop music.
More important, Jackson figuratively shattered the race barrier in popular culture, showing that an African-American performer could be the biggest crossover star in the world. He also single-handedly integrated MTV, which had blocked playing black artists in its regular rotation until Columbia Records threatened to pull all its videos from the channel unless they played Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” When MTV played it, the iconic “Billie Jean” video became an instant success, kicking the door open for a host of African-American artists, including Prince.
“(MTV) said they don’t play (black artists),” Jackson told Ebony last year. “It broke my heart, but at the same time it lit something. I was saying to myself, ‘I have to do something where they ... I just refuse to be ignored.”
Quincy Jones, Jackson’s longtime producer and friend, was devastated by Jackson’s death. “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,” Jones said in a statement.
Jackson would never again come close to the success he achieved with Jones — in part, because the magic had dimmed for his 2001 release “Invincible,” and in part, because the tabloid aspect of his personal life had become so closely linked to his public one that he became nearly impossible to promote to mainstream America.
Nevertheless, Jackson could still count on support from many of music’s biggest and brightest stars. His final American concert was in 2001 at Madison Square Garden, when A-listers from Whitney Houston and Britney Spears to Marlon Brando and Liza Minnelli showed up to celebrate his 30th anniversary as a solo singer. His most recent release, last year’s 25th anniversary edition of “Thriller,” featured Kanye West, The Black Eyed Peas’ will.i.am and Fergie, and Akon.
His positive legacy lives on in singer-showmen like Usher and Chris Brown and Ne-Yo, all of whom have been dubbed “the next Michael Jackson” at some point in their careers. But, as with all things associated with Jackson, it’s more complex than that.
When Jackson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001 by ‘N Sync, he said in his brief acceptance speech, “To me, the gift of music has been a great blessing, from the time I was a child.”
It’s a fitting way to look at such an extraordinary career. Perhaps the biggest tragedy for Jackson, though, is that such a great blessing will always be associated with an almost equally great curse.