Michael Jackson: A life in the spotlight
Singer has been a star since childhood
By Todd Leopold
(CNN) -- Some credit the moonwalk.
On the Motown Records' 25th anniversary special -- a May 1983 TV extravaganza with notable turns by the Temptations, the Four Tops and Smokey Robinson -- it was Michael Jackson who stopped the show.
At the time Jackson was the most popular musician in America, riding high with his No. 1 album "Thriller." But something about his electrifying performance of "Billie Jean," complete with the patented backward dance moves, boosted his stardom to a new level.
Michael Jackson became ubiquitous.
Seven of "Thriller's" nine cuts were eventually released as singles; all made the Top Ten. The then-new cable channel MTV, criticized for its almost exclusively white playlist, finally started playing Jackson's videos. They aired incessantly, including a 14-minute minimovie of the title cut. ("Weird Al" Yankovic cemented his own stardom by lampooning Jackson's song "Beat It" with a letter-perfect parody video.)
People copied his Jheri-curled hair and single-gloved, zippered-jacket look. Showbiz veterans such as Fred Astaire praised his chops. He posed for photos with Ronald and Nancy Reagan at the White House. Paul McCartney teamed with him on three duets, two of which -- "The Girl Is Mine" and "Say Say Say" - became top five hits. Jackson became a Pepsi spokesman, and when his hair caught fire while making a commercial, it was worldwide news.
It all happened very fast -- within a couple years of the Motown special. But even at the time of the "Motown 25" moonwalk, fame was old hat to Michael Jackson. He hadn't even turned 25 himself yet, but he'd been a star for more than half his life.
Today the glare of public attention is casting a different light on Jackson. The 46-year-old singing icon heads to trial on child-molestation charges.
To the top
Michael Jackson was born August 29, 1958, to Joe Jackson, a Gary, Indiana, steelworker, and his wife, Katherine. By the time he was 6 he had joined his brothers in a musical group organized by his father, and by the time he was 10, the group -- the Jackson 5 -- had been signed to Motown.
Jackson, a natural performer, soon became the group's front man. Music critic Langdon Winner, reviewing the group's first album, "Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5," for Rolling Stone, praised Michael's versatile singing and added, "Who is this 'Diana Ross,' anyway?" The group's first four singles -- "I Want You Back," "ABC," "The Love You Save" and "I'll Be There" -- went to No. 1 on the Billboard pop chart, the first time any group had pulled off that feat. There was even a Jackson 5 cartoon series on ABC.
The group's popularity waned as the '70s continued, and Michael eventually went solo, releasing the album "Off the Wall" in 1979. Its success paved the way for "Thriller," which eventually became the best-selling album in history.
But, as the showbiz saying has it, when you're on top of the world there's nowhere to go but down. The relentless attention given Jackson started focusing as much on his eccentricities -- some real, some rumored -- as his music.
As the Web site Allmusic.com notes, he was rumored to sleep in a hyperbaric chamber and to have purchased the bones of John Merrick, the "Elephant Man." (Neither was true.) He did have a pet chimpanzee, Bubbles; underwent a series of increasingly drastic plastic surgeries; established an estate, Neverland, filled with zoo animals and amusement park rides; and managed to purchase the Beatles catalog from under Paul McCartney's nose, which displeased the ex-Beatle immensely.
Jackson released his next album, "Bad," in 1987. Though it didn't equal "Thriller" in sales, it was successful in its own right, producing five No. 1 singles.
'A franchise in decline'
The pop music landscape was changing, however, opening up for rap, hip-hop and what came to be called "alternative" -- and Jackson was seen as out of step.
His next release, 1991's "Dangerous," debuted at No. 1, but "only" produced one top-ranking single -- "Black or White" -- and that song earned criticism for its inexplicably violent ending, in which Jackson was seen smashing car windows and clutching his crotch.
And then "Dangerous" was knocked out of its No. 1 spot on the album charts by Nirvana's "Nevermind," an occurrence noted for its symbolism by rock critics.
Since then, more attention has been paid to Jackson's private life -- such as it is -- than his music career, which has faltered. A 1995 2-CD greatest hits, "HIStory," sold relatively poorly, given the huge expense of Jackson's recording contract - about 7 million copies according to Recording Industry Of America certifications.
A 2001 album of new material, "Invincible," did even worse.
In 2002, Forbes magazine called the singer's musical career "a franchise in decline," based on diminishing album sales.
Meanwhile, Jackson has found himself pasted across the media for his short-lived marriages, the first to Elvis Presley's daughter, Lisa Marie; his 2002 claim that then Sony Records head Tommy Mottola was racist; his behavior and statements during a 2003 interview with British journalist Martin Bashir done for a documentary called "Living With Michael Jackson;" his changing physical appearance; and, above all, the accusations that he sexually molested young boys at Neverland.
The first such accusation, in 1993, resulted in a settlement to the 13-year-old accuser (rumored to be as high as $20 million) though no criminal charges were filed, Allmusic.com notes.
'Pop's Lost Boy'
The more recent accusations in a separate case, for which he is on trial, have even Jackson acquaintances concerned.
"Michael's life is in serious decline even without this indictment. He has not sort of gotten that there has to be major changes," a former colleague, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, told CNN in 2004. "My criticism of Michael is his self-absorption; the whole celebrity thing where he needs to feel like he's worshipped."
The Web is rife with criticisms about his music and personality, and the entertainment media hasn't been much kinder. Allmusic.com gave "Off the Wall" and "Thriller" its top rating, five stars; "Invincible" earned three.
But perhaps Entertainment Weekly's David Browne best sums up the general view of Jackson's current status as a pop star in a 2001 review of "Invincible:"
"So out of touch with reality that he still calls himself the 'King of Pop' despite evidence to the contrary, he's clearly desperate to top every pop chart like he once did," Browne wrote. "Now that his muse has forsaken him to the point where relative disappointments like 'Bad' and 'Dangerous' sound like half successes, he's become more of a fairytale figure than he ever imagined: He's pop's Lost Boy."