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The Transformer

When a piece of pop art dies.

Michael Jackson was a great many things, as we've been reminded in innumerable encomia since his death, and his special place in pop-culture history has to do not only with the multitude of his qualities, but also with his elemental thingness. When I think of Jackson, my mind goes immediately to the 1980s, when he emerged in full force as a performer with those colossal hits of the early video era: "Billie Jean," "Beat It," "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," "Thriller," and more. I picture him bedecked in epaulettes and satin, zippered tight into that glimmery, sexy-scary military uniform, which carried all the thematic content of Cabaret in one outfit. Though he began performing professionally with his brothers in the Jackson 5 as a child in the 1960s, and though he had his first solo success in the Seventies, Jackson is very much a figure of the Eighties, and I mean no disrespect to a great artist now departed when I say that he brings to mind a particular kind of figure specific to the mid-Eighties: an action figure called a Transformer. I can't help but suspect that Jackson would have relished being remembered in terms of a wondrous toy, a commercial object of juvenilia designed to enact miraculous transformations from humble living form to one of all-powerful robotic magnificence. Indeed, I can easily imagine Transformer as a title for one of the albums he is understood to have recorded but never released in the eight years since his last CD, Invincible.

In the lingo of the music business, musicians are known as artists, and the art they create is called product. Michael Jackson, indisputably a fine musician--indeed, one of the most original and influential singers in the history of American music--clearly conceived of himself as product; and he made the packaging of that product--his self-construction, in both marketing and surgical terms--his artform. It has been a commonplace of cultural journalism for years now to decry the commodification of the arts. For Michael Jackson, nearly as much as for Andy Warhol in another sphere, the commodification of the artist was the art.

A student of P. T. Barnum, Jackson no doubt understood the marketing value of his self-inflicted freakishness. He had a tent-show master's gift for providing sensation and melodrama, as well as rousing entertainment. It was a gift in wane since his trial for child molesting, at which he was acquitted in 2005; still, when the news first came yesterday evening that Jackson had been hospitalized in the midst of rehearsing for what was supposed to have been a series of extravagant comeback concerts, I received a round of emails from longtime Jackson watchers who couldn't resist wondering if we were all giving in to a tasteless publicity stunt. The idea, cynical as it may sound, was essentially a compliment to a one-time virtuoso of the tabloid arts.

"Remember when we was young, everybody used to have these arguments about who's better, Michael Jackson or Prince?" asked Chris Rock in an HBO concert special five years ago. After a beat, Rock said, "Prince won." The point seemed incontestable at the time; while Jackson grew increasingly reclusive and fell inactive musically, Prince retained his usual prolificity and adventurousness. Yet, Jackson's best records--especially his breakthrough solo album, Off the Wall, from 1979--endure as perennially irresistible dance pop, more fun (if less challenging) than most anything in the vast output of his old purple rival. Speaking for myself, I (1) cannot dance and (2) cannot sit still for more than a few seconds of "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough."

Jackson's singing, like that of other primary artists such as Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, Elvis Presley, or James Brown, is easy to imitate but all but impossible to equal. If influence is a measure of a value, Jackson is almost immeasurably significant as a vocalist. The evidence is in the sheer number of singers to follow him who have emulated his style: his distinctive laryngeal tone, his tight vibrato, even his ticky hiccups and penchant for turning open vowels in long warbles. Without Jackson as their model, George Michael, Babyface, Beyonce, Justin Timberlake, and countless others simply would not be the singers we know.

The great tragedy of Jackson's life is that, in the end, he was no longer the singer we once knew. He had long ago transformed into another sort of creature, a weird monster who had once made us want to dance, not run. We'll never know now if, on the stage again in London, he would have been able to change back.

David Hajdu is the music critic for

By David Hajdu