Michael Jackson: “The Greatest”

No one held our gaze like him


mjLive in the Situation Room, Wolf Blitzer addressed the nation. Michael Jackson, he said, was dead. Or at least that’s what other outlets were reporting. CNN was still working to confirm Jackson’s demise.

Blitzer consulted with a reporter known for his coverage of Jackson. They debated the precise level of shock to assign this development. Another reporter, this one having been to Neverland, mentioned Princess Diana. Blitzer introduced a 30-second clip of Jackson performing as a boy, then CNN’s “chief medical correspondent” was brought in to explain what happens to the body when it goes into cardiac arrest. A discussion of Jackson’s weight ensued. Blitzer stressed the need for heart defibrillators to be more readily available to the public. Another correspondent was brought in to find some irony in Jackson’s death coming just as he was to relaunch his career.

“It’s almost something out of a TV movie,” he sighed.

This was the epitome of Michael Jackson and Michael Jackson was the epitome of so much. He was the greatest pop star that has ever lived. Or, perhaps more accurately, he was the greatest celebrity. The master of an art.

There are, of course, comparisons—Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Charlie Chaplin, Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali, The Beatles, Princess Diana. Michael Jackson did not pioneer the concept. But in a world that demands extremes, he exceeded all limits. Even by the outlandish, often unspeakable, standards of the giants who came before him, he seemed otherworldly. He existed on a plane of his own. If he were a fictional character, he would’ve been read as a satirical send-up of the very idea.

The freakishly talented, ultimately damaged, child star. The singer of some of pop’s greatest hits. The best-selling album of all time, Thriller. Nineteen Grammy awards. The moonwalk. The crotch-grab. The white glove. The high voice. The revolutionary music videos. The tabloid stories about a hyperbaric chamber and the Elephant Man’s bones. The pet chimp named Bubbles. The fire on the set of a Pepsi commercial. Neverland. A video game. A sci-fi, 3D-movie directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Going to the Grammys with Brooke Shields and Emmanuel Lewis. We Are the World. AIDS and Africa and feeding the children. The messiah complex. The military uniforms. Floating a 30-foot statue of himself down the Thames. The plastic surgery. His skin turned pale, his face twisted. There were two marriages—one to Elvis’ daughter, Lisa Marie. Three kids, one nicknamed Prince, one dangled over a hotel balcony. Allegations of pedophilia. Rumours of drug abuse, eating disorders and mental illness. A trial on charges of sexual abuse. Exile in Bahrain as the guest of a sheik. Turning up at James Brown’s funeral to honour his hero, flirting with a comeback in Las Vegas. In preparation for his return to the stage in London this summer—a string of 50 sold-out concerts that would see him perform before more than a million people—he was apparently working out with Lou Ferrigno, the bodybuilder most famous for playing the Incredible Hulk in a short-lived television series.

That’s the short version. A worthy recounting would require a dozen volumes, each of which would no doubt be devoured by the hordes who are apparently gathering tonight outside the hospital in Los Angeles where Jackson now lays.  As I type, Al Sharpton’s telling a news conference that Jackson is one of America’s great racial trailblazers. “I hope Michael will get the respect he is due,” Sharpton is saying.

The respect he gets will be the respect he sought, the respect that is implicit in attention. No one did more to attain it. No one held our gaze like him. It is difficult, perhaps scary, to imagine how someone might do it better.

“We will never see his likes again,” Larry King is saying.

Up next, Cher and Celine Dion with their reactions. After that, days, weeks, months and years trying to make sense of what we’ve seen. One last, long tribute and testament to his particular kind of genius.


Photo Gallery: Michael Jackson through the years

Paul Wells remembers Michael on Motown 25

Stars react to Jackson’s death

Michael Jackson on ’70s variety shows


Michael Jackson: “The Greatest”

  1. Hmmm, he was actually a great celebrity and a great artist/performer, but maybe not a great person. Wherry's summary was perfect in capturing so much grandiosity in such a quick surface-glance, like MJ himself. He's going to be bigger than Marylin Monroe and Princess Di combined in the tragic-entertainer-biography-industrial-complex.

  2. Thanks for the summary. He was an enigma, he was our best of times and our worst, he is probably the last of his kind – the consumate performer. He lived to entertain and to create a buzz, may his body of work one day outshine his quirks…

  3. I still can't believe he's dead.

  4. Micheal Jackson was one God's greatest blessing to the world but He also knew how much MJ was suffering and thought it would be best for him to become an ANGEL. People have their negative comments but NO ONE can deny he IS and WILL ALWAYS be a LEGEND! A Micheal Jackson only comes once and if everyone had a pinch of the love he wanted to spread throughout the world, we all would be able to HEAL THE WORLD and MAKE IT A BETTER PLACE!!!! R.I.P. Micheal!!! I love you!!!

    • Amen!

  5. Goodbye to bad rubbish. It's just too bad that he died on the same day as Farrah Fawcett. She was fighting a battle against cancer that deserves more mention that the freaky life of a pedophile with more money than God.

  6. Talking about the lives he has touched, ask the children that he 'touched' if a couple of songs is worth the damage done to their lives.

  7. This is all too silly. The guy had one monster album but couldn't ever duplicate anything close to it. He introduced some unique dance moves. That's about it. To mention the guy in the same breath as the Beatles or Elvis is absurd. We didn't care anything about him for years and then he dies and all of a sudden he is some music god. GIVE ME A BREAK

    • You said it, "he is some music " person. Much bigger any day or time in our generation than Elvis who? or the Beatles??

    • Mr. P.

      Need one remind you that you are so wrong. And even so, that one album out sold any album by millions, and in todays world where everyone attention span is about half of what it used to be. You would have to grown up in the Elvis era to appreciate his music now. On the other hand MJ's music just seems to grab your attention and hold you until the entire song is over. It is quite clear that you grew up in the Elvis years and I must agree that you have every right to feel the way you do. I am a big Beatles fan and still love listening to their music, but it just does not move me and make me feel like MJ's music. The world hs lost a great music "ICON" and will probably never be replaced like MJ replaced Elvis, The Beatles and all that was before him.

  8. I don't think you have a broad-enough context mister P. Hayes. Believe me when I tell you that few, if any, rural and semi-urban kids in far away lands (south and central asia, south and central america) have heard of this beatles lot or that elvis chap. Everybody, save none, knows of Michael Jackson. Call it a freakishly successful american marketing gimmick if you will, but there's no denying that in a global context, Michael Jackson was (and perhaps will always be) the most outlandishly large celebrity of all times.

    • Thanks for reinforcing my point. The guy was more known for the hype delivered by MTV and the press. I am talking not about fame but about the quality and scope of his musical contribution. The Beatles and Elvis gave us album after album of top notch hits and their music will live on. To me you can't say someone was musically great unless they deliver consistently great albums year in and year out. Just because someone becomes very "famous" and sustains that fame by molesting kids, falling in love with a chimp and having freakish plastic surgery does not make them a great musician, it makes them a great sideshow

      • You diss marketing, but for some reason you seem to insist on measuring musical contribution by album sales.
        Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of the beatles, but I think it's unfair that you judge this man's contribution with such a narrow and biased metric. 50 cent who consistently sells over 10 million copies of every one of his albums (laced with misogynistic lyrics) would by your measure, be a musical genius.

        Also, I strongly disagree that his music has been any less influential than the beatles or elvis. Quite the contrary. I see more influence of his music on the current pop landscape than any other artist's. It's an arguably fair claim that he's spawned R&B. And personally, I've enjoyed all his work.

        Incidentally, not many of the aforementioned rural populace in distant lands know of MJ's child molestation charges. Media hype maybe effective around these parts, but unlike music, those kinds of airwaves don't retain their selling power in alien cultures where the man is not known so intimately. I can attest that his music is, and that he is known as the sound of the western world.

        • S.P.
          I agree with your comment wholeheartedly.

          Micheal Jackson did some amasing things for the music industry.

          If only he could have lived longger, I believe he could have discovered a host of other talents.

      • Mr. P. Hayes, To me sir, you sound like you are jealous. MJ was and is by far a musical genious. Elvis was also known for some really really freakish stuff. Just because you do not understand a person does not give you aright to belittle that person. And just because a lot of the stuff that he was accussed of doing was put on the media an air waves doesn't actually mean that they are true. MJ's following and the fact that millions and millions and millions of people around the world that would do anything to witness his funeral. How many other celaborties were willing to share time and spend a lot of their money to please kids of all ages. I know you are probably going to say that Neverland was to lure in little kids for his own pleasure. But I say to you that, if he wanted to he probably could have paid a lot of so called parents less than a million dfollarss to spend time with their kids. MJ was just a big kid himself, and it did his heart good to see kids happy and enjoying themselves.

  9. michael jackson is a very very talented person to the point that he rose as a pop icon. he would live forever in our history books and memories.

  10. Great article. Thanks for sharing.