VANCOUVER — From the moment Michael Jackson hit our cultural radar — back in 1969 as an 11-year-old singing and dancing dynamo with The Jackson Five, and then with that magical Billie Jean moonwalk in 1983, and now, with his death Thursday at the age of 50 — the story of the world's most famous pop star is one of both triumph and tragedy.
It is also a sad reflection of everything that is unholy about our celebrity-obsessed culture. For Michael Jackson's is not just the biography of a brilliant talent, but the narrative of a fall from professional greatness.
It's also the story of a fall from personal grace so profound, it transformed a once-beloved superstar into a financial, physical and psychological mess so troubled and removed from reality that neither he nor his career would ever recover.
Jackson's storied history is by now more than familiar: a 40-year unparalleled career that includes 13 Grammy Awards, 13 No. 1 singles in his solo career alone, and an astonishing unbroken record of more than 750 million albums sold worldwide.
He was not only a renowned singer, dancer and songwriter — his instant classic, Thriller, is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the bestselling album of all time — but a respected choreographer, producer, author and philanthropist.
There are those who will say Jackson's success was ultimately his downfall, and there is something to that, because he became so big, so famous and, ultimately, so troubled and isolated, that the fame and fortune crushed him. With all the notoriety and money and adulation came the demons, and under the pressure of the klieg lights of celebrity, Michael Jackson buckled. He morphed from a charming, spirited young boy dancing into our hearts on The Ed Sullivan Show into a freakish recluse who spent much of the last decade out of the spotlight and in self-imposed exile in Bahrain.
The memory of his astonishing talent is dulled by the idiosyncrasies: the sequined glove, the plastic surgery, the ever-whitening skin, the charges of child sexual abuse, the pyjamas in court, the weird marriage to Elvis Presley's daughter, the Peter Pan circus that was Neverland Ranch, the auction of his eccentric collections, the announcement earlier this year that he was making an unlikely comeback at a series of London concerts — and, of course, his three children, one of whom he infamously dangled from a hotel balcony, and whom he shielded from cameras by making them wearing masks in public.
Jackson was a slight shy boy born in Indiana and raised in the vacuum of a troubled family, one of nine children tutored for greatness by a disciplinarian father. His sisters, Janet, Rebbie and La Toya, and brothers, Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon and Randy, would find their own success in the music business, but it was Michael who shone the brightest, and who was destined to flame out far too early.
Jackson's sudden and shocking death, from cardiac arrest, comes on the same day the celebrity world lost another pop culture icon, Farrah Fawcett, who was 62, and whose passing reminds us that fame can be a cruel mistress, stripping its chosen few not only of their privacy, but of the opportunity for normalcy.
Fawcett, the leggy beauty who became famous on the TV show Charlie's Angels, and whose luxurious locks and sexy swimsuit poster redefined the pin-up girl for a generation, lived and died in the spotlight, chronicling her three-year battle with anal cancer in a recent documentary called Farrah's Story.
We are drawn, it seems, to those among us who brim not only with charisma and talent, but with fragility. From Elvis and Marilyn to Michael and Diana, we both stalk and worship them and, even as we see them struggle, we cannot let go, as if they owe us a piece of their lives, forgetting in our obsession that they are human.
With Jackson's death comes the reminder that, if he had become a caricature of all that is shameful about the cult of celebrity, then we are at least partly responsible for extinguishing the shining star. Comes, too, the reminder that he is, and was, one of the most dazzling artists to moonwalk into our lives.