If a death from a cardiac arrest seems too small and sudden a death for Michael Jackson, the biggest superstar in the world, it's because no death would seem appropriate for the self-proclaimed King of Pop. At his best and at his worst, Michael Jackson never quite seemed to belong to this world -his talent too enormous to comprehend, his self-imposed fantastical seclusion too odd to understand - so envisioning an end never quite seemed possible, although in many ways the final chapter in his tragic rise and fall was written years ago. The Michael Jackson the world loved so dearly hasn't been around for almost 20 years, starting to fade sometime after the coolly calculated Bad, then disappearing completely in the wake of scandal in 1993. It's no great stretch to say Jackson never recovered those accusations of child abuse - some would argue he may not have deserved to - but all that ugliness somehow never managed to erase memories of Michael at his peak, whether it was the preternaturally gifted young lead singer of the Jackson 5 or the international phenomenon of the '80s.
Those memories remained partially because they were burned into our collective consciousness - as the unprecedented worldwide outpouring of grief illustrates, there's not a soul alive that hasn't seen Michael moonwalking or dancing with his brothers - but because there's no music as rapturous as Michael's best. Even now, with the tragedy of his death fresh in mind and his sad decline all too evident, it's impossible to hear "I Want You Back," "ABC," "Don't Stop Til You Get Enough" or "Rock With You" and not get swept up in their transporting exuberance, his exhilarating brilliance preserved forever in the original productions by the Corporation and Quincy Jones. Darkness started to creep into the margins on Thriller - not through the horror movie homage of the title track, but in the paranoia that fueled "Billie Jean" and "Wanna Be Starting Something" - but it added depth and tension without stripping away the joy. And despite these deeply-felt undercurrents of tension and sadness on Thriller, something that can be traced back to the heartbreaking "She's Out of My Life" on Off The Wall, what remains so captivating is its enthusiasm, so infectious that it seems pure, even though close inspection reveals how Jackson - with the assistance of Jones and Rod Temperton - created a clean, seamless crossover that touched upon every sound and format of the early '80s, from electro-disco to soft rock and heavy metal.
Soon enough, those seams began to show as the joy calcified and Jackson's desire to remain the biggest star the world has ever known slowly stifled his creativity. Bad still had a stainless steel appeal, its calculations perhaps a shade too evident yet its transparent multi-format appeal was coolly confident and suited to the tail end of the '80s. In comparison, Dangerous seemed a bit desperate as Michael abandoned Q in attempt to sort out the ramifications of hip-hop, something that he never quite came to terms with, but that 1991 album turned out to be the last time he made music with at least one eye on the outside world. Hobbled by his personal demons, he painted himself in a corner, making wounded, vindictive, curiously compelling music that was purportedly pop but had no mass appeal: HIStory and Invincible attempted to follow the Dangerous blueprint, yet their overly labored production and crippling solipsism left them appealing only to the dedicated, of which there were still many millions.
But Michael Jackson was never meant to be a cult artist, which is one of the many reasons his music of the last two decades often struck a dissonant chord: he belonged to the masses, providing a soundtrack to billions of people around the world, from the millions that made Thriller the biggest album ever to those who never owned one of his records and yet knew all his hits. That is the Michael Jackson that has been absent for 20 years and that is the Michael Jackson that is being mourned today. His sudden death gives us all an opportunity to appreciate the enduring genius of his art but to realize that we have no musician that speaks to all of us â€¦ and that we haven't for some time now.