RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Michael Jackson had a huge impact on music and culture, both here in America and abroad. Critic Margo Jefferson is a Pulitzer Prize winning writer and author of the book, "On Michael Jackson." She joins us on the line from her home in New York. Good morning.
Ms. MARGO JEFFERSON (Author, "On Michael Jackson"): Good morning.
MONTAGNE: Let's go back to the first memories many people have of Michael Jackson as a child sensation, a young singer with The Jackson 5 - a child singer.
Ms. JEFFERSON: He was absolutely kinetic. He had that adorable little smile; James Brown moves; little, pouncy, boy-next-door and sexy, sexy man moves. And he was irrepressible.
MONTAGNE: And, you know, he had everything going for him at that time: a Saturday morning cartoon show, appeal to the teenyboppers, but also he became something of a cultural symbol.
Ms. JEFFERSON: He became a symbol, flanked by the brothers, for a kind of vault into the main arena of pop culture, where really race is just piquant and delicious, but it doesn't, in any way, hold you back.
MONTAGNE: Which was a new thing.
Ms. JEFFERSON: That was a big breakthrough. There was - there were no traces of that anxiety, that oh-this-is-the-other-side-of-town quality that, really, so much rock and roll and pop history has.
MONTAGNE: And as a solo artist later, when he was just in his early 20s…
Ms. JEFFERSON: And a great one to everyone's surprise.
Ms. JEFFERSON: We all think of child stars so rarely make that leap so brilliantly.
MONTAGNE: And of course, he leapt straight up to the heavens with "Thriller."
Ms. JEFFERSON: To the heavens, exactly.
MONTAGNE: Let's play just a little bit from a song I don't even have to say the title to.
(Soundbite of song "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'")
Mr. MICHAEL JACKSON (Singer): (Singing) I said you wanna be startin' somethin'. You got to be startin' somethin'. I said you wanna be startin' somethin'. You got to be startin' somethin'. It's too high to get over (yeah, yeah). Too low to get under (yeah, yeah).
MONTAGNE: We're talking with critic and author Margo Jefferson. And musically, talk to us about what set Michael Jackson apart.
Ms. JEFFERSON: He knew, with his songwriting, with the producers he chose, how to take the best and hippest elements from everything that was around him. Just with that song, you've got that driving funk pulse, you've got that Afrobeat, you've got that sweet but urgent voice. And those lyrics that always suggest something a little menacing, emotionally.
MONTAGNE: So "Thriller," just staying with that, it came out just as MTV was emerging. And his dancing and choreography were not only groundbreaking but also helped start the whole genre of music videos.
Ms. JEFFERSON: Music videos, thanks to Michael, jumped from, oh, here are series of little shots of knees striking, cute little poses with the music going, to mini musicals, you know, real little narratives, you know, that came right out of the musical tradition and the greatest of street dancing at center.
MONTAGNE: You know, and yet through all of this, he was a very isolated person - I think it's fair to say had a troubled life - in his later years.
Ms. JEFFERSON: Oh, he had a troubled life, I think, from his early years. He was overexposed emotionally, physically. He was used, worked, driven externally and internally. I think there was a huge psychic damage from many, many, many, many, many years back.
MONTAGNE: That he died just when he was ready for a really big comeback, one that many fans were looking forward to, sold-out shows, it seems especially poignant.
Ms. JEFFERSON: It's very poignant. He loved symbolism. So it was going to be 50 shows, he was 50 years old, then he was going to disappear in a blaze of glory - and this is what we have instead. And it's kind of heartbreaking, though a part of me is a little relieved that no one will be able to sneer if he didn't live up to it or make fun of him again.
MONTAGNE: Well, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts with us on the death of Michael Jackson.
Ms. JEFFERSON: Oh, it's kind of heartbreaking, isn't it?
MONTAGNE: Critic Margo Jefferson wrote the book on Michael Jackson.