Review of the Year 2009: Michael Jackson

Off the wall, even in death

Few things, amid the madness and sensationalism that marked Michael Jackson's extraordinary life and still-mysterious death, were so grimly appropriate as the manner in which the world marked his passing. On 7 July, his body was carried in its solid-gold coffin to a sports arena in downtown Los Angeles, where an 8,000-strong crowd, plus a global TV audience estimated at one billion people, bore witness to popular music's equivalent of a royal funeral.

The memorial service, 12 days after Jackson's sudden death, was at times genuinely moving. It showcased the soaring talent that touched the world, taking him from the rust belt of Indiana to global super-stardom. It demonstrated how he had bridged the gap between black soul and white pop music, selling 750m records, and releasing, in the shape of Thriller, the best-selling record ever. But it also a provided a reminder of the circumstances that contributed, over the final quarter-century of his pantomime existence, to his endlessly sad decline.

Jackson's was a cautionary tale. As a child star in a 1970s family troupe called the Jackson Five, he'd learned how to sing and dance with an improbable poise that few men, or women, will ever match. As a young adult, he'd popularised the moonwalk, and became one of the most gifted songwriters, lyricists and producers of his generation. But the enduring tragedy of his too-short life, borne out in the extravagant headlines that continue to fill newspapers, was that private shortcomings would eventually end up consuming his public genius.

You could see as much in the running order that morning. One speaker was the actress Brooke Shields, a former girlfriend, who failed to mention, in her tearful tribute, that she'd last seen the singer 18 years previously and, like most of his nearest and dearest, had since been cut off. Another was the Reverend Al Sharpton, who boldly claimed there was "nothing strange" about this notorious eccentric who once made friends with a chimpanzee. In the audience, overshadowing the singer in death as he had through life, sat Joe, the abusive father who had already used the tragedy to plug a business venture.

It was, in other words, a bizarre and troubling event that summed up a performer whose life had too much razzle-dazzle, and too little substance. Yet there were times, during gospel songs, show-stopping performances from Mariah Carey and Stevie Wonder, and an affecting moment when his daughter Paris spoke of "the best father you could ever imagine", when you could for a moment peer behind the mask and glimpse the haunting reach of his old possibilities.

History will record that Michael Joseph Jackson died in the summer of 2009 as he prepared for an unlikely comeback tour. He'd managed, in his 50 years, to achieve a level of combined celebrity and notoriety that may never be matched.

For a time, in the 1980s, he was the world's most brilliant performer: an energetic genius, who churned out hit after hit, and built, a few hours' drive from Los Angeles, a gaudy Hearstian home called Neverland. In death, he proved himself still capable of stopping daily life in its tracks.

History will also show that, some time around his 30th birthday, cracks had started to appear in Jackson's character. His appearance began changing; youthful good looks gave way to a bewildered caricature. He had failed to make any real friends and instead accumulated an impenetrable circle of mercenary advisors. "Michael is one of the most talented people I've ever known," his lawyer John Branca later concluded. "At the same time, he's made some of the worst choices in advisors in the history of music."

Over recent years, there'd been money problems. There had been uncomfortable questions about his relationships with children, which, despite his sensational acquittal when he was tried for paedophilia in 2005, he never managed to shake off. For most of his final decade, following a disastrous appearance in a documentary by Martin Bashir, Jackson withdrew into in Howard Hughes-like isolation.

A welter of confusion and mystery swirled after his sudden death at around noon on 25 June, from a cardiac arrest that followed a sleepless night in which he'd been given a cocktail of dangerous prescription drugs. The world looked for someone to blame. People criticised AEG, the concert promoters who twisted his arm into agreeing, after years in which he'd been largely seen in wheelchairs, to return to stage. They raised eyebrows at Conrad Murray, the doctor with money problems who is likely to face criminal charges in connection with what a coroner has officially ruled a homicide.

In print, on the airwaves and online, a cottage industry of revelation sprang up, with news sources competing to out-bid each other with tales of Jackson's needle-marked body, and gaunt physique. Dubious old associates came out of the woodwork to deliver paid punditry. At some point, the website TMZ became an indispensable source of reliable information.

The public, meanwhile, fell back in love with Jackson's music, causing his net worth to soar, for the first time in years. Prisoners in the Philippines became a YouTube sensation, performing "Thriller". His surviving family began bickering over a billion-dollar estate.

Now, of course, Jackson has been buried. A tribute film, This is It, is fading into obscurity. The LA court system will spend 2010 poring over the gory details of his death, and wrangling over the will continues. But aside from lawyers, it's difficult to find any winners in the troubling tale of Michael Jackson. When he passed away, news anchors spoke of a king being dead; the sad truth was that he'd never really been allowed to live.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria air strikes: ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings

    Robert Fisk on Syria air strikes

    ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings
    Will Lindsay Lohan's West End debut be a turnaround moment for her career?

    Lindsay Lohan's West End debut

    Will this be a turnaround moment for her career?
    'The Crocodile Under the Bed': Judith Kerr's follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    The follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    Judith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed' - which has taken 46 years to get into print
    BBC Television Centre: A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past

    BBC Television Centre

    A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past
    Lonesome George: Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains

    My George!

    Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains
    10 best rucksacks for backpackers

    Pack up your troubles: 10 best rucksacks for backpackers

    Off on an intrepid trip? Experts from student trip specialists Real Gap and Quest Overseas recommend luggage for travellers on the move
    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world