ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Now we have this remembrance of his life from NPR's Neda Ulaby.

(Soundbite of song, "I Want You Back")

NEDA ULABY: Once, Michael Jackson's talent was the most compelling thing about him, says music critic Jody Rosen.

Mr. JODY ROSEN (Music Critic): I think "I Want You Back" is one of the greatest pop singles I've ever heard.

Mr. MICHAEL JACKSON (Lead Vocalist, Jackson 5): (Singing) When I had you to myself, I didn't want you around. Those pretty faces always make you stand out in a crowd.

ULABY: That hit single famously thrust young Michael Jackson and four of his brothers from the Gary, Indiana talent show circuit to world fame. Their grimly focused father put Michael on stage at age 5. The child, says Rosen, somehow channeled the gifts of vastly more seasoned performers.

Mr. ROSEN: He had a very gritty voice at that time, which is strange, given the fact that as he grew older, he started to sing more and more like a prepubescent little boy. And when he was a prepubescent little boy, he was singing like a kind of soul elder statesman.

ULABY: The Jackson 5 had four number one singles in a row, a TV show and they toured constantly. All under the guidance of Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, who had a genius for crossover - molding black artists into mainstream stars.

Gordy told NPR's Liane Hansen in 1994 that young Michael had a normal childhood.

Mr. BERRY GORDY (Founder, Motown Records): Oh, we played baseball every week. We did all kinds of fun things. I think it's been overdramatized about his lack of fun, I mean...

LIANE HANSEN: Like having no childhood...

Mr. GORDY: No childhood. Well...

HANSEN: ...a single time to play.

Mr. GORDY: You know, he had a childhood.

ULABY: That account is disputed by Jackson biographers.

Critic Jody Rosen.

Mr. ROSEN: There are stories of, you know, the Jackson 5 on the road and all the older brothers cavorting with groupies, while young Michael Jackson, you know - 10, 11, 12 years old - kind of sat in a corner and hung out.

ULABY: Jackson's years at Motown were a study in manipulation and control. Like Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye before him, Jackson rebelled. He left Motown and took his first adult solo album to another label. But on the surface, Rosen says, Jackson morphed from child star to pop idol with apparent ease.

(Soundbite of song "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough")

Mr. JACKSON: (Singing) Lovely is the feeling now. Fever, temperatures rising now.

Mr. ROSEN: His transition to adulthood really did seem seamless. He was sort of the disco-era prince. This was 1979. He was this beautiful young man, and he was recording these dance songs which kind of married some of the music of the disco era and the emphasis on party anthems with the feeling of classic soul.

(Soundbite of song "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough")

Mr. JACKSON: (Singing) Closer now, to my body now.

ULABY: The break from Motown paid off with a new kind of rhythm and blues, says Jason King, a professor at New York University. King says in Jackson's album "Off the Wall," you can hear a euphoric sense of freedom.

Professor JASON KING (New York University): Absolutely, it was his declaration of independence. He had a particular vision of himself doing these funk up-tempo dance numbers and the ballads that he had done as a child — but to do them on his own.

(Soundbite of song "Rock With You")

Mr. JACKSON: (Singing) Girl, close your eyes. Let that rhythm get in to you.

ULABY: With the help of producer Quincy Jones, "Off the Wall" scored four top 10 hits. But King says for Jackson, that wasn't enough.

Prof. KING: All of the major Motown artists had the same ambition, which was upward mobility, crossover, reach as high as you can.

(Soundbite of song "Thriller")

ULABY: In 1983, Michael Jackson's "Thriller" became the top-selling album in the world. Critic Jody Rosen says Jackson's restless crossover ambitions were realized with "Thriller."

Mr. ROSEN: Certainly, in songs like "Beat It," where Jackson hired Eddie Van Halen — who at the time was, you know, hard rock's reigning guitar hero — to play this goofy heavy metal solo. And that also helped get him on MTV, which, prior to that time, had been domain, almost exclusively of white artists.

(Soundbite of song "Beat It")

Mr. JACKSON: (Singing) Beat it, beat it. No one wants to be defeated.

ULABY: Jackson changed MTV for black artists and video auteurs, who admired his skill with the medium. But Jason King says Jackson was driven to top his own success.

Prof. KING: Which became an impossible goal because Thriller sold such an incredible amount of copies.

ULABY: Jackson released more records, but sales declined precipitously. Jackson's music got denser and more baroque, his behavior more erratic. His videos and performances became bloated, multimillion-dollar affairs. Then came the charges of child molestation.

(Soundbite of TV show "Never Scared")

Mr. CHRIS ROCK (Comedian): Another kid? That's like another dead white girl showing up at O.J.'s house.

ULABY: For comedians like Chris Rock, Michael Jackson became a punch line, or an extended riff.

(Soundbite of TV show "Never Scared")

Mr. ROCK: Another kid, get the (censored) out of here. Yo, that's how much we love Michael. We love Michael so much we let the first kid slide.

ULABY: We've loved Michael Jackson, been horrified by him and we've pitied him.

Not long ago, critic Jody Rosen was at a nightclub. Everyone there was too cool to dance. Then the DJ started spinning Michael Jackson's early hits, one after the other.

Mr. ROSEN: As soon as he started playing those, the dance floor was stampeded. The longer it went on, the more ecstatic the crowd got, and everybody was dancing. And so that's kind of the image that I think I'd like to remember Michael Jackson by, which is just the sheer joy generated by his best music.

ULABY: The Michael Jackson in his mind, Rosen says, was not a has-been, a controversy or a joke. He was a genius.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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