The outpouring of tributes to Michael Jackson testify to how the 50-year-old star, who died Thursday of cardiac arrest, once occupied the pinnacle of pop music success. From his early youth as the lead singer of the Jackson 5 in the 1970s to his mega-stardom as a solo act in the 1980s, Mr. Jackson's songs saturated the culture.
Michael Jackson's brand of urban pop wasn't to everyone's taste, but many of his songs provided part of the definitive soundtrack for the post-Elvis, post-Beatles generation looking for the next big thing.
When MTV debuted in the early 1980s, its music-video component provided the ideal platform for some of Michael Jackson's most innovative work. It didn't hurt that his 1982 album "Thriller" was the best-selling solo recording of all time. MTV was compelled to play Mr. Jackson and many other black artists, or risk instant and permanent irrelevancy. More than any other artist of his era, Michael Jackson understood the importance of image and the power of technology to project it.
Like Elvis and the Beatles, he was a global superstar whose appeal transcended cultural differences. He was just as popular behind the Iron Curtain as he was on radio stations from Alabama to Alaska. If he took a trip to Tokyo to shop for toys for the retinue of children who constantly surrounded him, he was mobbed at the airport by thousands of squealing fans.
If the histrionic label "King of Pop" ever applied to anyone, it accurately described Michael Jackson for a decade that was roughly the '80s. But along with unprecedented fame, wealth and adulation came the dark side of what it meant to be king.
Tabloids thrived on tales of his eccentricities. His brief and troubled marriage to Elvis Presley's daughter guaranteed round-the-clock paparazzi attention. On top of outlandish rumors were lawsuits from just about everyone. Ex-employees peddled sordid stories to the tabloids and Mr. Jackson's tendency to spend like one of the Sun Kings of imperial France compromised his financial security.
Michael Jackson's reputation was tarnished almost beyond repair by allegations of child molestation that dogged him from the mid-'90s to a high-profile trial in 2005. He was acquitted, but he fled the country with his three children.
This week in Los Angeles he was rehearsing for a comeback tour in Europe that was to begin in two weeks. No doubt, Michael Jackson was desperate to prove he was still relevant. With his music now being replayed across the country, his death may redeem his reputation more than anything he could do on stage.