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Appreciation

Despite star's troubles, the music was a thriller

By James Reed
Globe Staff / June 26, 2009

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No matter how bizarre and disturbing Michael Jackson’s personal life got - and, man, it certainly did - one thing was always constant: His music was like Teflon, completely unscathed by all the allegations and grave missteps that played out in courtrooms and in the glare of spotlights.

It happens time and again at house parties and on nightclub dance floors. Someone commandeers the iPod or a DJ pulls out a slab of vinyl, smiles broadly, and puts on one of Jackson’s countless classics. The speakers suddenly blare exclamatory choruses - “You know I’m bad!’’; “Cause this is Thriller! Thriller night!’’; “I want to love you, P.Y.T.!’’ - igniting sing-alongs and pale imitations of Jackson’s fabled moonwalk. It’s as though everyone has suddenly forgotten all the sordid details that would torpedo anyone else’s career.

“Do you think Michael Jackson molested those boys?’’

“Hey, remember when Michael Jackson dangled that baby over the balcony?’’

“How much plastic surgery has he had, anyway?’’

None of that mattered when Jackson’s music played. He was one of the rare performers whose art trumped their personal tragedies. It’s akin to how some people forgive Woody Allen’s marital indiscretions because they love “Annie Hall’’ so much or overlook Frank Sinatra’s reported Mafia ties because, hey, he was the Chairman of the Board.

That’s not to say that Jackson shouldn’t have paid for his mistakes. Because he did, to some degree, and there’s no excusing some of his behavior. But if you judge Jackson by his art, which is his ultimate legacy, he’s untouchable.

Jackson’s death will hit people in their 30s and 40s particularly hard. He’s the first ’80s pop icon to die, and people will remember where they were when they got the news, the way we did with John Lennon and Kurt Cobain. We grew up with Jackson, purchasing his records, copying his dance moves, buying gloves (but we needed only one) to emulate his fashion sense, watching his face morph from youthful to unsettling.

Truth is, most of us probably haven’t bought a Michael Jackson record since 1991’s “Dangerous,’’ his last great album. Yet somehow this enduring affinity for his music is not rooted only in nostalgia. When I hear “Beat It,’’ I have no memories of dancing to it when I was a kid as the vinyl spun on my little Fisher-Price record player, even though that’s exactly what happened. All I can think about in the moment is how insanely good the beat is, how unforgettable that guitar line sounds. Nor am I transported to junior high when “Heal the World’’ comes on the radio. I’m too busy trying to sing harmony (and forget the sappy lyrics).

If you didn’t hear Jackson’s newer songs on Top 40 radio (his last studio album was 2001’s “Invincible’’), you at least hear his indelible influence on a vast range of artists who do dominate the airwaves. There’s a whole generation of male pop stars deemed “the next Michael Jackson’’ - Justin Timberlake, Ne-Yo, and Usher - but even they would admit they are aping the King of Pop.

Within minutes of yesterday’s sad news, Facebook and Twitter accounts lit up with status updates. Celebrities from Miley Cyrus to John Mayer expressed shock and heartache. I logged onto my own Facebook page and watched the stream of friends’ testimonials, the modern equivalent of signing the guest book at the funeral service. They came pouring in from every stripe of people, young and old, black and white: “my heart. it breaks. tonight i listen to thriller non-stop. love you so hard michael jackson,’’ wrote a 25-year-old female DJ in New York.

Reading their updates, I was about to add my own until I noticed someone had stolen my words: “Talk about the end of an era. Damn.’’

James Reed can be reached at jreed@globe.com.

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