Michael Jackson (August 29, 1958 – June 25th, 2009) went by many names: MJ and The Gloved One of course, but there were also crueler monikers like Wacko Jacko. Clearly, this was a man who was many things to many people. Still, above all else, Jackson was the King of Pop.
The cute underdog of The Jackson 5 crossed over to become America’s sweetheart and, in young adulthood, the wunderkind prodigy of song and dance. His first work as a solo artist, 1979’s “Off the Wall,” went platinum eight times. Then there was 1982’s “Thriller,” the best-selling album of all time, which sold a staggering 42.4 million copies. Do we even need to get into “Bad” and “Dangerous”?
Sadly, the way Jackson will be remembered for us, especially on this anniversary of his untimely death, is for his tragic addiction and the somewhat questionable decisions he made perhaps as a result of it.
The story of his spiral, while extreme, is familiar terrain for most addicts– though his happened in front of our eyes.
After suffering an injury while on his Dangerous tour in 1993, Jackson started taking Valium, Ativan and Xanax. A trip to rehab afterwards didn’t take. Whether or not his addiction was exacerbated by the physical abuse he suffered at the hands of his father doesn’t, ultimately, matter. This is a guy with an otherworldly talent who lived what many would consider a charmed life and yet always wanted to escape who he was. Why else the endless plastic surgeries?
In the years that his addiction seemed to really take hold, Jackson became a walking paradox. While delving deeper into disturbing adult lyrics, in public he seemed to psychically regress into a childhood he was deprived of, specifically with his creation of Neverland and then, of there, the litany of child molestation accusations that would come to define his career.
In preparation for his trial in 2005, Jackson’s bodyguards told Santa Barbara police that he’d been taking more than 10 Xanax a night, as well as travelling to doctor’s offices in other states to get the prescriptions he needed. Scarily, the guards noted, 10 pills a night was actually an improvement over his earlier habit of taking as many as 30 or 40 Xanax a night.
By the time of his trial, Jackson’s transformation was complete: his skin was bleach-white, his hair frazzled, his face virtually unrecognizable from the boy that America fell in love with in the 60s and 70s. And his dependence seemed to intensify as the stress of touring and dealing with his messy public scandal wore on.
Jackson died of cardiac arrest brought on by a combination of benzos and the surgical anesthetic propofol—a drug his personal physician Conrad Murray had shown him how to administer himself. (Ultimately, Jackson’s death was treated as a homicide and Murray was convicted of involuntary manslaughter.)
And yet throughout Jackson’s decline, the gentle lilt of his voice remained—ever light and childlike, in sharp contrast to the near-unearthly dynamism of his vocal performances. Those close to him described him as incredibly shy; Quincy Jones recalled that Jackson would actually sing to him from behind a couch with the lights off so long as Jones covered his eyes. Despite extreme sensitivity in his private life, Jackson’s bravery on stage was electric. His voice slid liquidly from joy to fear, excitement to anguish—often on the same track.
It took his death to dispel the image of Michael Jackson as an almost inhuman figure. As one of his biographers recalled, trying to understand Jackson was like “analyzing electricity.” The same could probably be said for trying to understand addiction.