Michael Jackson was a creative visionary and gifted performer who redefined what pop could-or should—sound like.
The future King of Pop carried soul and R&B into the mainstream in the '70s with the Jackson 5, and then leveraged music videos and smart collaborations to become a beloved global superstar in the '80s.
Michael Jackson was already a decorated solo artist and a music industry veteran by the time he performed "Billie Jean" on the gala Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever anniversary TV special. But on that night in 1983, when he glided across the stage and did the moonwalk across the stage for the first time, he became the King of Pop.
The regal moniker fit Jackson to a tee in the '80s, when 1982's Thriller went supernova and established him as the most popular performer in the world. Besides being a sophisticated musical tour de force amalgamating R&B, soul, pop, disco and rock, the album boasted elaborate music videos. Jackson intuitively understood the power of this new visual medium, and paired stylized sets and costumes with engaging storylines and graceful dance moves—all of which amplified both his mystique and Thriller's appeal.
"Billie Jean" featured a sequence of him dancing on a light-up path and being pursued by a mysterious photographer, while the violence-condemning, gritty street scenes of "Beat It" had a pointed message. Both of these clips effectively integrated MTV, which had been hesitant to deviate from a rock-oriented playlist predominantly featuring white musicians, and paved the way for the 14-minute mini-horror movie "Thriller," which became a staple on the channel.
By the time Thriller became a success, Jackson was used to being in the spotlight. Born in Gary, Indiana, he was the eighth child of Katherine and Joe Jackson, and the youngest member of the Jackson 5—just 11 when the group had their first hits in 1970. Buoyed by the sibling troupe's success, Jackson launched a solo career in 1971 that spawned the Motown-inspired hits "Got To Be There" and "Ben"—both of which highlighted his pure, child-like voice—and a funky cover of "Rockin' Robin."
Jackson was eager to stretch his talents, however. In 1978, he played the Scarecrow in the musical film The Wiz, and then teamed up with legendary producer Quincy Jones for his 1979 LP, Off The Wall. Now 21 years old, Jackson sounded self-assured on the album's disco and soul hybrids "Rock With You," "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," and comfortable in his adult voice on the lush "She's Out Of My Life."
Off The Wall set the stage for Thriller, which spent 37 weeks atop the Billboard album chart. Jackson then followed up that LP with 1987's Bad, which reflected the decade's taut, funky production trends ("Man In The Mirror," "Bad") and kept pace with the inventive pop crafted by fellow superstars Prince and Madonna. Jackson also showed off a more personal, vulnerable side on the dynamite soft-glow ballad "I Just Can't Stop Loving You" and the angrier "Leave Me Alone," which alluded to the downside of his massive fame.
The accompanying Bad world tour was yet another wild success, as was his 1988 autobiography, Moonwalk. 1991's Dangerous LP would eventually also become a hit too, although it had an auspicious introduction: The video for lead single "Black Or White" caused an uproar due to footage of Jackson smashing in car windows and grabbing his crotch. Still, Dangerous was a sleek, contemporary-sounding update of Jackson's music (see: the New Jack Swing influence on "Remember The Time" and "Jam") and featured the ambitious, heartfelt anthems "Heal The World" and "Will You Be There."
As the '90s wore on, Jackson's reputation as an eccentric personality started to overshadow his music—especially after he faced serious accusations about his personal life. In 1993, a 13-year-old boy accused him of child abuse and later filed a civil lawsuit against him, which was later settled out of court, while in 2005 Jackson was acquitted of molesting a separate 13-year-old boy, after a lengthy trial. In between, Jackson also had two high-profile marriages and divorces (including to Lisa Marie Presley) and fathered three children.
Despite the tabloid frenzy around him, Jackson soldiered on with music, releasing 1995's HIStory: Past, Present and Future—Book I—a double album highlighted by the jagged hip-hop duet "Scream" with sister Janet Jackson and the gentler, comforting "You Are Not Alone." Yet this era too was marked with musical controversy, after he was accused of anti-Semitism for the derogatory slurs included in "They Don't Care About Us." Subsequent albums (including a 1997 remix compilation and 2001's Invincible) sold well, but came nowhere close to the heights Jackson reached during the '80s.
Amidst so much turmoil, he eventually retreated from the spotlight and moved to Bahrain, and stuck to touring overseas and tending to his charitable foundation. Still, by March 2009, Jackson seemed ready for a return to the public eye, and announced his first live shows in 12 years, a London residency dubbed "This Is It."
Sadly, on June 25, 2009, before the shows could happen, Jackson died of cardiac arrest, a condition reportedly hastened by an overdose of the powerful sedative propofol. In a sad twist, Jackson's doctor, Dr. Conrad Murray, was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in 2011 for his role in Jackson's death.
Despite the controversy and media circus in the years since his passing, Jackson remains a beloved (and much-missed) musical figure. Nearly 35 years after its release, Thriller continues to resonate with new generations of music fans: In February 2016, it was certified 32 times platinum, reinforcing its status as the best-selling album of all time.