Jackson: the definitive superstar of the MTV-era

The 'King of Pop' used the music channel to moonwalk his way to fame. But his decline, too, was precipitated by the way TV amplified his peculiarities.

Akira Suemori/AP
Fans in Michael Jackson T-shirts are interviewed outside the O2 arena in London on Friday.

Precisely the same force that led Michael Jackson to the pinnacle of popular culture contributed to his eventual – some say precipitous – fall: the confluence of his rise with MTV and the rise of the music video, say analysts.

Mr. Jackson's dance moves were an integral part of his appeal, and he is credited with transforming the idea of a music video into both an art form and promotional tool. He was a major force in attracting the viewers that made MTV a cultural phenomenon.

Yet the very same focus on appearance, most obvious in drastic plastic surgeries, is what may have helped lead to Jackson's eventual fall from popularity.

"The fact that his appearance changed so radically right in public made him appear stranger and stranger, and music videos made noticing that unavoidable," says Peter Lehman, director of the Center for Film, Media, and Popular Culture at Arizona State University.

Jackson blossomed at a time when MTV was establishing itself as a creative, cutting-edge force, says Professor Lehman: "His music videos broke new ground creatively and focused on his genius for choreography that formed an indelible part of his image.

"Without MTV, it's hard to imagine what his career would have been," adds Lehman. "There was no one who made videos that were as different or compelling, and so his career was unparalleled in music history."

He is one of the few artists to have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice, and he is in the Guinness Book of World Records for being "Most Successful Entertainer of All Time" with 13 Grammy awards, 13 No. 1 singles, and sales of more than 750 million albums worldwide.

He has donated and raised millions of dollars for beneficial causes through his foundation, charity singles, and support of 39 charities. In 1984, Jackson received an award at the White House from Ronald Reagan for his support of charities that helped people overcome alcohol and drug abuse.

But Jackson's fame declined because of "that sense of being weird and strange," says Lehman.

Other behavioral quirks peppered the news, as well. One was a reported penchant to sleep in an oxygen bed for health reasons. Later, he was caught on video tape, holding a young child over a balcony.

Older brother Marlon said Michael had been abused by his father, a steel worker, from a very young age – including name-calling and whippings, which affected Michael later in his life. He said his father held Michael upside down by one leg and "pummeled him over and over again with his hand, hitting on his back and buttocks." Michael told Oprah Winfrey in 1993 that he often cried from loneliness in childhood and would sometimes start to regurgitate upon seeing his father.

Legal problems came later – most notably a lawsuit brought by the parents of young male visitors to his Neverland Valley Ranch near Santa Barbara, Calif. In 1993, he was accused of child sexual abuse, but the criminal investigation was dropped for lack of evidence. In 2005, he was tried and acquitted of sexual abuse allegations and several other charges.

Jackson was born in Gary, Ind., in 1958, the seventh of nine children. After touring the country with his brothers as The Jackson Five, Rolling Stone magazine noted that Michael "quickly emerged as the main draw and lead singer." Starting in 1972, he released a total of four solo studio albums with Motown.

"When I saw him perform as a child, I was mesmerized. When I saw him later as an adult, I was motivated and inspired," says Bill Brendle, keyboardist and arranger for legendary Motown songwriter Lamont Dozier. "His music has touched me throughout all phases of my life ... not just myself but countless millions. Without him, pop music would not have been the same."

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