The true tragedy of Michael Jackson’s death is the cruel timing. After a decade making headlines for all the wrong reasons – child abuse allegations, court cases, a catastrophic breakdown of his finances – Jackson was, in 2009, on the verge of a genuine career rehabilitation.
The fact that all 50 dates of Jackson’s London O2 residency sold out in hours served notice that the erstwhile king of pop was back, re-energised, and willing to remind fans of why he was famous in the first place – not for his freakish celebrity, of weirdness, or his Christ-like personal flights of fancy, but for his jaw-dropping, superhuman powers as a performer.
By way of tribute, here are Jackson’s finest moments.
I Want You Back (1969)
Co-authored by Motown boss Berry Gordy and originally intended for Diana Ross, this was the ultimate showcase for the bell-like purity and exuberance of Jackson’s youthful voice – he was 11 at the time.
I’ll Be There (1970)
Staying just the right side of schmaltz, this graceful ballad is given an added note of vulnerability thanks to its famous fluffed line, “Just look over your shoulders, honey” – a nonsensical attempted reference to The Four Tops’ ‘Reach Out I’ll Be There’.
Wanna Be Startin’ Something (1983)
Elevating gibberish to an artform (“Mama-se, mama-sa, mama-coosa”), ‘Thriller”s insistent opening track demonstrates Jackson’s ability to use his voice as a percussive instrument.
Penned by a Cleethorpes-born Brit, Rodney Temperton, ‘Thriller’ was significant not so much for the song as the 14-minute video, which radically shunted back the boundaries of this new format.
Beat It (1983)
Heralding Jackson’s shift from funky song-and-dance man to leather-clad street-tough, this muscular track was aided by a ferocious guitar solo from Eddie Van Halen. The resulting rock/pop hybrid meant Jackson was embraced by MTV and mainstream radio for the first time.
The Way You Make Me Feel (1987)
One of ‘Bad”s sweetest, slinkiest moments, with a suffling rhythm that enabled Jackson to showcase his extraordinary, lean-limbed, panther-like dancing in the video.
Man In The Mirror (1987)
Not merely an inward-looing hymn to self-renewal, this was at heart a rueful state-of-the-nation address in the ‘What’s Going On’ mould. It’s also Jackson’s most arresting ballad – even if the key changes at the end push it into gospel cheese territory.
Originally intended as a duet with Prince (imagine how good that would have been), the production has dated badly – but the instinctive, maverick brilliance of Jackson’s vocal still shines through: a symphony of whoops, howls, and non-verbal riffs that would come to be ruthlessly parodied, but never convincingly imitated.