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Michael Jackson: Man in the Music, Part 1

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That's what makes greatness. You have to have that tragedy, that pain to pull from. That's what makes a clown great. You can see he's hurting behind the masquerade. He's something else externally. -Michael Jackson

"I know the creator will go. But his work survives. That is why to escape death I attempt to bind my soul to my work." -Michelangelo, quoted by Michael Jackson in a 2007 interview with Ebony

For the past few years, I have been working on a book exploring Michael Jackson the artist (entitled Man in the Music: An Album by Album Guide to Michael Jackson). As a cultural critic and music aficionado, it has been a fascinating process of discovery. Overshadowed by his eccentricities, his legal battles, even his fluctuating commercial success, few people have explored what made Michael Jackson a star in the first place: his staggering artistic talent.

Just two days ago, in fact, I was up late polishing the chapter on his first solo album, Off the Wall (an oft-overlooked masterpiece that set the stage for Thriller).

Like many others, I also anxiously looked forward to his sold-out concert series in London at the O2 Arena, which Coldplay singer Chris Martin described as "the biggest comeback since Lazarus" as well as his highly anticipated new album, which would have been his first new studio material since 2001's Invincible).

Then last night the tragic news.

Like millions of others from my generation, Michael Jackson has been a part of my life the way the Beatles were to a previous generation. I remember the first time I saw him dance on Motown 25, the hundreds of times I popped Thriller or Bad or Dangerous into my Sony Walkman, wearing out my VHS of "The Legend Continues," watching the worldwide premier of the "Black or White" video, practicing the moonwalk on my kitchen floor. So many of us growing up in the Eighties have memories like this.

As I grew older, many of my musical interests changed. But Michael Jackson remained. Even as he hid behind walls and masks, even as he was reduced to a freakish caricature by the media, his complex mixture of joy, sadness, innocence, exhilaration, anger, paranoia, wonder, social concern, suffering, loneliness, and transcendence came through in his songs. They reminded us that, after all, he was a human being.

Today I grieve with millions of others around the world. The news of Michael Jackson's death is not just shocking as many journalists are saying. It is devastating on so many levels. The "King of Pop" is, as he once sang, gone too soon. But he lives, as he always did, in his art.

Over the next few days, since I can't yet release the entire book, I will share excerpts from each album (chapter) of Man in the Music that hopefully opens new windows into his remarkable talent, career, and creative life.