The ABC’s of Michael Jackson go like this: androgynous sexuality, bodacious dancing, captivating MTV presence. (D is for definitely different.) But who is this mono-gloved stranger? A musician with the best-selling album in history. A recluse who would make Garbo proud. The boy who never grew up. Quincy Jones, who produced his landmark Thriller album, probably said it best: “Sometimes I think Michael is from another planet.”
In fact, of course, this most gifted member of the mighty Jackson gene pool started on the bongos at age 5 in his family’s Gary, Ind., R&B band. But he emerged almost instantaneously as a hyperkinetic, singing, dancing wunderkind. And a wunderkind whose appeal was, let’s face it, kinda weird. Idolized by swooning, even fainting, girls at Jackson Five concerts, the preteen Jackson of the early ’70s exuded what became a defining trait as he got older—a tantalizing mixture of baby-faced innocence and lithe sensuality. Sexiness without the sex.
And instead of vanishing into that galaxy reserved for child stars and family novelty acts, Jackson unveiled his greatest skill: He managed to remake his siblings and himself, and ultimately just himself, over and over again. From their first Motown single in 1969, “I Want You Back,” through early ’70s hits like “ABC” and “I’ll Be There,” through the move to Epic Records in 1975, when Jackson funked up their bubble-gum sound and the fans began to shake their bodies, the Jacksons, with Michael in the foreground, pulled in enough gold and platinum to hold down a blimp. Then, in 1982, came the Big Bang—the double wham-my of MTV in its infancy and the release of Thriller. The solo album moved faster than Jackson’s video footwork, amassing a yet-to-be-surpassed 42 million in sales and prompting, 10 years later, a $60 million, six-album contract from Sony Music. Its magic lay in the way he moved, the way he sang, the way, even as his music and his talents evolved, he retained his childlike touch, his virginal magnetism.
Thriller, for Jackson, was both bane and blessing. Parent and child, black and white, rich and poor, begloved and besequinned, fans dogged his moonwalking steps, mobbed his concerts, flung themselves in his path. And, he has suggested, drove him into hiding at his high-security Santa Ynez, Calif., ranch, Neverland, full of llamas, zebras, video games and amusement-park rides. “Being mobbed hurts,” he once told an interviewer. “You feel that any moment you’re gonna just break.”
Maybe. But even at 33, when he hits the stage, as he’s doing yet again on tour this summer, Michael Jackson still flies.