In an age where fellow megastars turned celebrity into political and financial leverage, Michael Jackson's own fame backfired catastrophically. Stephen Dalton looks at the troubled life of the pop icon.
Michael Jackson: pop icon 1958 - 2009
It is a testament to Michael Jackson's extraordinary talent that his shocking death on Thursday already feels more like predetermined tragedy than random accident. The troubled singer's cruel demise, on the eve of a comeback tour that might have salvaged his tattered reputation, recalls earlier celebrity burnouts, including those of Elvis Presley, Jim Morrison and Marilyn Monroe. But beyond lie more timeless echoes of Frankenstein, Dorian Gray and Icarus, too. Jackson was man, monster and myth combined. He was a startlingly gifted child star who grew up into a kind of distorting fun-house mirror for all the grotesque obsessions of our age, from plastic surgery to child abuse. His fame was forged in a more innocent era before 24-hour news, the internet and the proliferation of celebrity gossip-driven media channels. The launch of MTV coincided with the singer's breakthrough solo success in the early 1980s, helping to make his 1982 masterpiece, Thriller, the best-selling album of all time. It has sold more than 109 million copies. And yet this master of the new visual media slowly lost control of his own image. In an age when fellow megastars such as Madonna, Bono or Angelina Jolie are able to turn celebrity into political and financial leverage, Jackson's own fame backfired catastrophically. The ever-expanding mass media that built him up eventually helped to ruin him, and "Wacko Jacko" seemed powerless to fight back, almost inviting his own destruction with increasingly bizarre behaviour. His last 15 years of lawsuits, financial disasters and stalled comebacks felt at times like the longest suicide note in show business history. Arguably, the damage was done before his career even began. The seventh of nine children in a large working-class family, Jackson was pushed into performing at the age of five. But even as he began to earn top billing as the magnetic young star attraction of the Jackson 5, he suffered years of physical and mental abuse at the hands of his stern steelworker father, Joseph. Jackson only went public with his family history in a series of tearful interviews in 1993. It does not take a psychiatrist to view many of Jackson's subsequent troubles as a warped, impossible quest to regain the normal childhood he never had. The singer's two high-profile trials over sexual abuse charges, and his apparent inability to recognise how his behaviour might be seen as suspicious, suggest at best a kind of dangerously childlike innocence. Jackson was acquitted, of course, but the second trial left him emotionally and financially battered. His reputation never recovered. Enormous success also exerts a gravitational pull on the people around you, making normal human friendship difficult. Many of Jackson's relationships certainly appeared dysfunctional to outsiders. A steady marriage might have given the singer a more balanced emotional outlook, and dampened lurid media speculation. But his private life seemed to buckle under the weight of his emotional wounds. When Jackson married Lisa Marie Presley in 1993, he was reeling from abuse allegations and prescription drug addiction. "I wanted to save him," Presley later confessed. But she could not, of course. The damaged star had already flown too close to the sun. Whether man, monster or myth, nobody could save Michael Jackson from himself. Stephen Dalton is a music critic for Uncut magazine and The Times.