That Michael Jackson was a strange, unknowable figure is beyond doubt, yet there are a few things about him that we can take as fact. The King of Pop was one of nine siblings in a working class family from Gary, Indiana, who was thrown into the limelight before he had reached his teens. As a solo artist, he bridged the gap between black and white audiences like no entertainer before him, selling millions of records and becoming the biggest star of the 1980s.
But from there on, things got complicated. His appearance changed beyond recognition, and his public persona, too, took on a new character: His behavior, previously perceived as charmingly eccentric, now looked worryingly, perhaps dangerously odd. Jackson’s fall from grace was complete by the time he was arrested on child molestation charges, and though he was ultimately acquitted, his reputation never recovered. He died—horrifically young—a few years later, disfigured, broke, and discredited.
This is the official story. But the strange thing about Jackson is that, more so than any other star, our perception of him is defined by subjective individual responses. For almost all of us born between the 1960s and the ’90s, there will be at least one specific, emotional memory of the man that transcends the usual parameters of stardom. My own takes us back to the northeast of England in 1996, where, as a Thriller-obsessed seven-year-old, I stayed up late to watch Jackson’s appearance on a live televised awards ceremony. (Remember: Quite apart from appealing to fans from different racial backgrounds, Jackson also bridged the age divide like nobody else.)