From the moment we first saw him fronting the Jackson 5, belting out ''I Want You Back'' as if heartbreak and pain were nothing new to him, it was obvious this kid was more than a natural -- he was preternatural. Motown president Berry Gordy Jr. -- who released 7 of the group's top 10 singles -- saw it instantly, and concluded that Michael was ''a born star.'' God knows he had plenty of soul, more than any of his brothers, who weren't exactly soul slackers. But Michael had something else, something unquantifiable.
The extent of his gift became clearer in 1979, when Jackson made his first solo album, teaming up at Epic with producer Quincy Jones. If the result -- the masterful, seven-million selling ''Off the Wall'' -- was a revelation (aging child star morphs into slick, sophisticated vocalist and songwriter, producing what ''Rolling Stone'' called ''discofied post-Motown glamour at its classiest''), a subsequent tour was the real eye-opener. A self-conscious 21-year-old whose high-pitched whisper of a speaking voice hinted at affectations to come, Jackson was an enirely different animal on stage. His highly stylized phrasing and dancing were fiercely sexual and macho. The girls were starting to scream.
''Off the Wall'' and its top 10 hits (including ''Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough,'' and ''She's Out of My Life'') confirmed Jackson as pop's prince. Then, in 1982 came his coronation. ''Thriller'''s staggering success cannot be underestimated: It remains one of the best-selling albums of all time (46 million copies worldwide), and Jackson won 8 of a possible 10 Grammy awards in '83 -- a standing record.
But the album's real significance lies in its wholesale obliteration of preconceived notions of ''black'' and ''white'' music. Its hits -- ''Billie Jean,'' ''Human Nature,'' ''Beat It'' -- became ubiquitous, embraced by soul lovers, casual pop fans, the burgeoning hip-hop nation, and rock enthusiasts. (The crossover appeal was something Jackson savvily orchestrated, recruiting frat-boy rocker Eddie Van Halen to contribute a searing lead guitar on ''Beat It.'') Even MTV had to pay attention: ''Beat It'' was the first video by a black artist to spin into heavy rotation, making Jackson a kind of Jackie Robinson of pop. And the 14-minute video of ''Thriller,'' with MGM-worthy choreography, pushed the genre to astonishingly ambitious heights (it won three moonmen at MTV's first Video Music Awards).
By 1988, he'd fallen to earth. Bubbles was out, and the rumor mill was churning: The King of Pop was soon eclipsed by Wacko Jacko, a bizarro alter ego whose normalcy seemed to fade with his skin color. Many trees have been sacrificed to the question, What went wrong? Jackson had a crappy childhood of unremitting showbiz; his dad, Joe, would beat him up; he's got a sister named La Toya. Those are three good explanations.
Really, though, who cares? Jackson's career can be seen as a morality tale, a Greek tragedy writ in tabloid headlines -- the artist triumphant felled by ego unchecked. But we the audience are also complicit in the fall: Jackson is as pure a symbol as any of America's devastating plunge into the base pursuit of gossip and scandal. The naive fantasy is that if he can rise above it, couldn't we?
As the world awaits the next chapter of The Michael Jackson Story, the artist is getting ready to party like it's 1999. On the eve of the new millennium, he's scheduled to play two concerts, one in Sydney, Australia, followed by another in Honolulu, netting $8.5 million for each show. Because of the 20-hour time difference between the two cities, he will be able to ring in the new year twice. It figures. Who else but Michael Jackson could be in two places at once? -- Tom Sinclair