Tricky steps from boy to legend

Tricky steps from boy to legend


Jackson built his stardom on paradox. As a child star he was precocious; as an adult he was childlike. His only competition was himself. Within the razzle-dazzle of his songs, he sang about fears and uncertainties in that high, vulnerable voice: flinching from monsters in Thriller, wishing he could just Beat It when trouble began.

He was a racial paradox, too: an African-American whose audience was never segregated, but whose features grew more Caucasian and whose skin grew lighter through his career, to discomfiting effect.

Dance moves
His dance moves were angular and twitchy, hinting at digital stops and starts rather than analog fluidity — except, of course, for his famous moonwalk, the image of someone striding gracefully without ever leaving centre stage. The world-beating success of Thriller was Jackson’s triumph and burden. He had the sales, the Grammy Awards, the screaming audiences in every country he toured. And he would spend the rest of his career trying to repeat the experience working many of the same manoeuvres into his music: another duet, another rock guitar, another ratcheting dance track. Jackson never stopped being catchy, but behind the sheen some of the songs grew darker and stranger, like Smooth Criminal, with its intimations of violence, on the 1987 album Bad.

The underlying sweetness that had made Jackson endearing had curdled, and he couldn’t resuscitate it for his final album, Invincible, in 2001. All the pieces he had put together started to fall apart.

He was working on a stadium spectacle for shows in London this summer, and we will never know if all his skill and showmanship could have given him a new start.

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