As Michael Jackson made the unfortunate transition from pop-music icon to tabloid staple, one of the most common lines of attack was on his ever-changing appearance, the way his skin dramatically lightened in tone, and his face altered in structure. What's most tragic about Jackson's death, aside from the fact that it comes as he was mounting a comeback to include a sold-out 50-show residence at London's O2 Arena, is that what people will remember about him is his changing face. What they should remember: the way he changed the face of pop music.
Jackson first came to prominence as the pint-size nucleus of his family band, the Jackson 5. He quickly became the focal point of the group because of his pinup cuteness and, of course, that voice. What was so remarkable about the young Michael was his ability to communicate youthful innocence, or precocious wisdom, or sometimes both at the same time. It was no small feat for the same preteen to credibly deliver shrewd stories of love and loss like "I Want You Back" and "The Love You Save," as well as he carried off cutesy soul ditties like "ABC" and "Rockin’ Robin." He led the group to four No. 1 singles.
But his watershed moments came after he came out of his awkward teenage years. At 20, Jackson starred in the film version of The Wiz, at which point he met Quincy Jones, who agreed to produce his fifth solo album, Off the Wall. The record was a mature, sexy blend of pop soul with a heavy, danceable disco groove. Having spent his earlier years trying to straddle vocal puberty, he effortlessly become an adult. It certainly helped that Jackson was so adept at using that voice, and that he had a set of amazing songs to work with, among them "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" and "Rock With You," in which Jackson sings lyrics that perfectly describe his own gifted footwork: "When you dance, there's a magic that must be love."
As stunning an artistic statement as Off the Wall was, it did little to prepare anyone for the cultural phenomenon that was his subsequent album, Thriller. Jackson's goal was to create an album in which every song was a hit. He didn't quite accomplish that, but he did create a classic pop album that fans zealously snatched up (to the tune of an estimated 100 million copies worldwide to date) and that solidified his status as the King of Pop. Debate still rages about whether Off the Wall or Thriller is stronger as an album. (I, for one, think it's the former.) But the sea change Jackson created with Thriller had less to do with the music than with the medium. At the height of MTV, Jackson became the first black artist to create a fan base using his image rather than in spite of it. His grasp of performance and presentation remains without parallel.
Jackson's subsequent albums failed to reach the stratospheric heights of Thriller. But Jackson retained his knack for spectacle. Every music video he released was a major event, which is why MTV's lifetime-achievement statue at its annual awards show still bears his name. As a singer, as a songwriter, as a performer, as a dancer, Jackson remains among the most gifted, imaginative, larger-than-life musician of any race that has ever come along. Whatever changed about him over the years, that certainly didn't.