Michael Jackson has died at age 50. It occurs to me that there's a whole generation out there for whom the man was never anything but a tabloid headline, so here's a quick reminder that his fame began not with a facial operation or a Macaulay Culkin joke but with some incredibly catchy music:
At a time when the most creative singers in the Motown stable were seizing control of their careers and making more challenging (and rewarding) music than the company had issued in the '60s, the Jackson 5 were a reminder that the studio could still produce singles whose only ambition was to be a completely perfect pop song. Jackson's early solo career was no less fun: How many people who swear they hate disco will, when pushed, make an exception for the best hit on Off the Wall?
Then came Thriller in 1982, which was so enormously popular -- and broke through so many racial barriers -- that I hate to admit that aside from the spare and infectious "Billie Jean," I never really warmed to it. After that there was a bunch of albums that didn't interest me much at all, and with time didn't interest his other old fans either. By the '90s his music took a back seat to the freakshow atmosphere around him: the personal theme park, the plastic surgery, the peculiar parenting decisions, the accusations of pedophilia.
I've written about that stuff before, and I don't feel the need to revisit it now. If Michael Jackson hadn't sung some great songs in the late '60s, the '70s, and the early '80s, no one would have cared how he lived his life. On the day of his death, I'll ignore the weirdness and enjoy the music.