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The Tragedy of Michael Jackson

The self-proclaimed King of Pop was nobody's victim.

Am I the only one who sensed, amid the raucous hoopla that followed Michael Jackson's death, something antiquated in the air? The hip-hop era, profane and insistent, continues with little obvious influence owed to the supposed King of Pop. Superstar franchises like Bruce Springsteen, the Police and the Rolling Stones efficiently sweep across the world's stages, pulling in $300 million, $400 million, even a half billion dollars. Jackson barely appeared live in the last dozen years of his life.

Jackson's fame was a simulacrum from another era -- or eras, to be precise, because he managed to glide effortlessly out of the slightly musty world of 1970s soul into the bright and incandescent MTV age of the early '80s. But that was more than 25 years ago, before Public Enemy or Nirvana, before Eminem, Jay Z or Lil Wayne.

There was another way Jackson seemed from a previous time. And that is the obsession with victimhood that ran through all of the commentary and memorials that followed his death.

Marlon Jackson, one of the original members of the Jackson Five, gave this version of his late brother's life at the memorial service: "Being judged, ridiculed -- how much pain can one take? Maybe now, Michael, they will leave you alone." The Rev. Al Sharpton got the crowd cheering with his litany: "He outsang his cynics, he outdanced his doubters, he outperformed the pessimists. Every time he got knocked down he got back up!"

Even the head of AEG, the promoter of the series of London concerts Jackson was set to perform, hit this note in Billboard: "To me, the success of [the memorial] is measured by the fact that I think we were able to really humanize my friend and erase those caricatures that the press had created of him."

From Brooke Shields to Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D., Texas) everyone was on message, echoing the talking points Jackson himself threw up in the shadowy years before his death. Somehow or other Jackson convinced himself -- and seemingly, his family and partisans -- that he wasn't a powerful musical superstar. He was instead a victim of some mysterious stew of health maladies, public persecution, and secret sadnesses that, we were to understand, made this frail man-child shiver with fear.

The reality is different. Yes, Jackson grew up in a working-class black family during the 1960s. His father by his own account did not spare the rod. According to the Jackson children, he overused it. And touring with a group of randy older brothers who (Jackson said later) bedded groupies in the hotel rooms they shared after warning a cowering Michael to keep his eyes closed was not a great environment for a preteen.

On the other hand, young Michael had a recording contract at 10 and was a star at 11. (Not many 12-year-olds get six-figure royalty checks in the mail.) His group, the Jackson Five, enjoyed an impressive burst of fame.

From there Jackson had continuing hits as a child solo artist. And after a disruptive but smart break from Motown, he had more hits with his brothers, rechristened as the Jacksons. His first adult solo record, "Off the Wall," (Epic) was an immediate smash and was hailed, then as now, as perhaps the greatest dance-pop record of all time. His second adult solo record was called "Thriller" and, well, you know that story.

If you're still looking for clouds in Michael Jackson's life, they are hard to find. It's said, for example, that his record label gave him some grief about hiring Quincy Jones to produce his solo albums. And Jackson was apparently miffed that "Off the Wall" didn't win enough Grammys. He certainly could not have complained about the reception "Thriller" received.

With "Thriller" behind him, Jackson was 24. All that was required of him was to maintain credibility with his fans and continue making respectable albums. Stevie Wonder had demonstrated how effective that road was. Mr. Wonder, with little of Jackson's PR manipulations, was able to pull off sales stunts like having an album debut at No. 1 on the Billboard chart -- a virtually unprecedented achievement in the 1970s. And he dominated the Grammys for years.

Rather than focusing on his music, Jackson began to obsess about his appearance. He altered his features, at first slightly, then eerily. His image-making began to shift, too. The sexy and charming young man on the covers of "Off the Wall" and "Thriller" was suddenly "Bad," as the title of his next album insisted. Then he was "Dangerous," as the next one claimed. It felt shrill and forced.

In "Man in the Mirror" he said he was going to take a look at himself and "make a change." It was an odd declaration for a guy who'd been embarking on a plastic-surgery regimen extreme even by entertainment-industry standards. Jackson still sold records, but it was clear he was no longer the music's biggest star.

That's when he began strong-arming compliant entertainment news outlets to call him "the King of Pop." It was the start of his relentless devotion to trying to convince the world of how famous he was. He developed a fondness for walking around in front of a large band of what seemed to be Central American military personnel; this was in the '80s, the era of Salvadoran juntas and assassinations of priests and nuns. One album, "HIStory," featured an enormous Soviet-style Jackson statue on the cover. Replicas of it were set up when he made public appearances.

Then Jackson began to lose interest in his creative side altogether. He managed to release but two CDs of new material in the last 18 years of his life. He toured the world twice during that time, but somehow, besides a couple of shows in Hawaii, managed to miss the United States. His last coherent series of stage appearances was in 1997.

You have to ask: What did Michael Jackson do all day? Well, he evidently spent a lot of time ingratiating himself into families with young kids, notably boys, some of them ill. He had them over for sleepovers, sometime private ones. Then he claimed to have fathered his own kids and blandly demurred when anyone pointed out that the children -- how to put this? -- were white.

People who care about Jackson and loved his music -- I'm one of them -- should acknowledge that Michael Jackson had exactly one mortal enemy on earth, and that was Michael Jackson. He apparently had some mildly embarrassing medical afflictions like vitiligo. But, far more significantly, he apparently suffered from a psychological condition that made him want to alter himself physically -- ultimately beyond repair.

If only he had an enormous fortune, a large family, and an extraordinary network of famous friends to help him cope with those problems. Instead of turning to them, he chose to run away from his art, become a drug addict, ruin his personal reputation, dismantle a towering fortune, embark on transparently absurd PR campaigns, and turn himself into a world-class freak show.

In the transfixing 2003 documentary "Living with Michael Jackson," the star looks like nothing more than a latter-day Blanche DuBois, denying a sordid past and ultimately reality with a shake of his hair and a deranged titter. Jackson's tragedy was almost entirely self-made. Even his complaints about the press ring hollow. It's hardly sporting to complain about the dogs he unleashed for nosing around the spectacle he quickly became.

All of these realities are ignored by the victim talk. It's a cover for a terrible waste, and a lost chance to reflect on how not to live one's life. Michael Jackson was older than Elvis when he died, but he died the same way: alone with the one person who could have saved him.

Mr. Wyman, a former assistant managing editor of National Public Radio, blogs at

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