Remembering Michael Jackson's Very Complicated, Immeasurably Influential Life

In honor of what would have been the King of Pop's 60th birthday, an attempt to distill the memory of a larger-than-life icon.

By Billy Nilles Aug 29, 2018 3:21 PMTags
Watch: Prince Jackson Talks Honoring Late Father

How does one go about distilling the memory of a man once he's no longer here? 

We eulogize, we mythologize, we grasp at ways to neatly and succinctly sum up a person's existence; what it meant to them, what it meant to us, what it meant to the world. They become the hero or the villain. We categorize them, we need it to be neat. It's just easier that way. But people in their truest forms are more complicated than that, their lives a jumbled confluence of contradictions, a melding of noble intentions and inherent flaws—the sinner and saint all wrapped up in one messy package.

And Michael Jackson's life just may have been the messiest.

As we celebrate what would've been the King of Pop's 60th birthday on August 29, nine years following his untimely death thanks to acute propofol and benzodiazepine intoxication at the hands of an enabling physician later convicted of involuntary manslaughter, one still wonders how best to consider him: the iconic, unparalleled performer or the complicated, tortured soul underneath? Can you have one without the other? And should you even want to try?

Michael Jackson's Star-Studded Memorial
RICHARD YOUNG/Shutterstock

For his children, the hope is that Jackson is remembered for all he did for his fellow man during his 50 years on this rock, as son Prince Jackson, who will be with his siblings Paris and Blanket in Las Vegas with the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation on their father's birthday, told E! News at the 2018 iHeartRadio MMVas in Toronto earlier this week. "They are going to be awarding him an award for his humanitarian work," he said of the plans to celebrate Michael's "Diamond birthday." "And I think it's an appropriate thing because, above all else, I think he wanted to be remembered for his contributions to humanity."

And, frankly, that's not a bad place to start. Widely heralded for his pioneering effort in charitable fundraising in the entertainment industry, the Guinness World Records once recognized him for supporting a total of 39 charities, more than any other performer. Dedicated to the ideals of equality and world peace, Jackson spent much of his career donating millions of dollars to charity, penning hits like "We Are the World" explicitly to aid the poor across the globe. In 1992, he launched the Heal the World Foundation, with a stated mission of "improving the conditions for children throughout the world" by fighting world hunger, homelessness, child exploitation, and abuse. He was also one of the first artists to publicly throw their weight behind efforts to bring attention to the HIV/AIDS crisis, publicly pleading with President Bill Clinton at his inaugural gala to give more money to charities and research. 

Sony Did Not Admit to Releasing Fake Michael Jackson Music
SME (on behalf of Epic) / Quincy Jones Productions

Of course, those weren't his only contributions to humanity. One might argue that perhaps his biggest contribution to the rest of us was his artistry itself. And they might be right. Jackson was a pioneer in every sense of the world. With the release of Thriller in 1982, he became the first artist to use music videos as successful promotional tools, popularizing an art form that remains an industry standard and fan favorite to this day while almost singlehandedly making the existence of MTV possible.

And then there's his sound, his dancing, his style, his approach to celebrity, his breaking down of racial barriers—all of it revolutionary, all of it influential to a younger generation in ways both massive and minuscule. In death, he remains the record holder for the world's best-selling album of all time (Thriller, with an estimated 66 million copies sold). He was the first and only artist to ever have five albums sell over 30 million copies worldwide. Guinness World Records has recognized him as the Most Successful Entertainer of All Time.

Of course, there was a darkness, too. The yang to all this yin. Jackson spoke openly about the abuse he endured as a child star at the hand of father Joe Jackson, a taskmaster who pushed his family to great heights but at quite a cost. There was his ever-changing appearance, a confusing mix of plastic surgeries, posthumously diagnosed vitiligo (a disease that causes one to lose pigmentation in their skin in large blotches), and a reliance on make-up to cover up the skin disorder. There was the erratic behavior (the infamous dangling of baby Blanket off a balcony comes to mind), the eyebrow-raising romantic relationships with Lisa Marie Presley and Debbie Rowe, the Neverland of it all. And, of course, there were the disturbing allegations of child molestation that, though either settled out of court or dismissed with full acquittal, followed Jackson like a specter for the rest of his days.

Paris Jackson Cleans Graffiti Off Michael Jackson's Hollywood Walk of Fame Star
George Rose/Getty Images

And then there's our role in all of this: A not-always-kind public's obsession with the man they both revered and reviled with wild vacillation. We dubbed him "Wacko Jacko" in the press. We rarely stopped to consider why a painful childhood might lead a man to behave in such childlike ways that left us ill at ease, how our obsession with his greatness might lead to an acute paranoia or a drug addiction or a broken spirit. As we've mourned the loss of him, we've also eased up on this side of him, this side of us; perhaps to give him the peace he deserves or the peace of mind we think we deserve.

At the time of his death, Jackson was in the process of mounting his biggest comeback yet, a concert series eerily and rather aptly entitled This Is It. After years of negative headlines, it felt as though this was the performer's big swing to bring the attention back to what, in his eyes, mattered most: The music, the craft, the spectacle, the art. Dying just three weeks before the first sold-out show, Jackson never got that chance.

But maybe he knew something we didn't all along. Maybe he knew that he would live on long after he ceased to exist. "I always want to do music that inspires or influences another generation. You want what you create to live, be it a sculpture or painting or music," Jackson told Ebony in 2007. "Like Michelangelo, he said, 'I know the creator will go, but his work survives. That it why to escape death, I attempt to bind my soul to my work.' And that's how I feel. I give my all to my work. I want it to just live." All these years later, it still does. And because of that, he does too.

Iconoclast. Humanitarian. Father. Child.

He is all of these things and yet, on their own, he was none of them. Without one, you don't have the other. He was man, he is myth. He was the King of Pop. And he is missed.