Thriller (1982) was Jackson’s masterpiece; it was also his curse. It won him unprecedented adoration: No one—not Frank Sinatra, not Elvis Presley, not the Beatles—commanded as large a global audience. But it was also a commercial and artistic milestone that Jackson spent the rest of his life trying in vain to repeat.
His albums remained compelling. Bad (1987) was a masterpiece in its own right, and Dangerous (1991), HIStory (1995), and Invincible (2001) were mesmerizing in spots. Increasingly, though, Jackson’s music was warped by megalomania: huge production budgets, Wagnerian ballads, songs that swung wildly between self-pity and grandiosity. “Heal the World,” he sang, but his own face, rent by plastic surgery, revealed the sickness within. At the 1995 Brit Awards (the U.K. equivalent of the Grammys), Jackson sang “Earth Song” surrounded by a worshipful children’s choir and an actor dressed as a rabbi, whom Jackson “blessed.” The performance was interrupted by the arrival on stage of Jarvis Cocker, the lead singer of the Britpop band Pulp, who shook his butt at the audience while Jackson rose toward the rafters on a hydraulic lift. (“My actions were a form of protest at the way Michael Jackson sees himself as some kind of Christlike figure with the power of healing,” Cocker said.)