A life in pictures: Michael Jackson

The King of Pop is still one of the most influential artists of our time, we look back on his life and everything that built the icon he became

Early life

Michael Joe Jackson was born in Gary, Indiana, on August 29, 1958, as the fifth child of Joe and Katherine Jackson's brood which included nine others; Maureen “Rebbie”, Sigmund “Jackie”, Toriano “Tito”, Jermaine, LaToya, Marlon, Brandon, Steven “Randy” and Janet. His childhood was notoriously difficult and his Father’s clamour for success supposedly overshadowed all the love and affection that a parent is designed to show their child—even venturing into disturbing abusive behaviour and neglect.


During an interview between Producer Chris Rooney and Chris Apostle, Rooney recounted a remark Jackson had made about growing up with his father: 

“When I was a kid, I was denied not only a childhood, but I was denied love. When I reached out to hug my father, he didn't hug me back. When I was scared on an airplane, he didn't put his arm around me and say, ‘Michael, don't worry. It's going to be OK.’ When I was scared to go on stage, he said, ‘Get your ass on that stage.’ ”


Jackson 5

After an early Jackson 5 performance when Michael was only six years old, the group won an on-stage prize which cemented their father, Joe Jackson’s, pursuit of their fame. During a “Soul Weekend” in Gary, Diana Ross became affiliated with the boys and with her support in tow, they shortly signed a contract with the label Motown Records.

"As long as I can listen to the moment, I’ll always have music"

With their funky sound attracting attention around the country (especially that of young people) and transcending colour boundaries, the brothers were the first pop group in history to have their first four singles hit number one. They were becoming the “new sound of America” and becoming a category of their own with their new so-called bubblegum-soul sound. With tracks like ABC, I Want You Back, and The Love You Save storming into the charts, the Jackson 5 pop sensations even spurred the making of a cartoon series based on the brothers called “The Jackson 5ive” in the summer of 1971. Jackson hysteria was well and truly underway.


Going Solo

With the Jackson 5 falling in popularity and no longer hitting the top of the charts, Michael ventured out to pursue a solo career and was almost immediately met with success. His first No. 1 single was from his 1972 album, Ben which featured the eponymous ballad about his dead pet rat.

"People ask me how I make music. I tell them I just step into it. It’s like stepping into a river and joining the flow. Every moment in the river has its song. So I stay in the moment and listen. What I hear is never the same. A walk through the woods brings a light, crackling song: Leaves rustle in the wind, birds chatter and squirrels scold, twigs crunch underfoot and the beat of my heart holds it all together. When you join the flow, the music is inside and outside, and both are the same. As long as I can listen to the moment, I’ll always have music."—Michael Jackson in his book Dancing the Dream




MJ’s iconic smash hit Thriller might have been very different to the one we know and love today. The album which parents it was almost named “Midnight Man” and the track called “Starlight” until songwriter Rod Temperton thought up Thriller one morning as he awoke. 

Never one to deliver a perfunctory routine, MJ refused to settle for only a smash hit and created a scenario that would change music videos forever. In 1983, he called director John Landis and asked if he would be interested in making a film for the song Thriller which at the time had been released for around a year. Landis agreed to make a 13-minute short and with massive stars such as Fred Astaire, and Marlon Brando on set, along with a budget of $900,000 the aspirations were high. It certainly delivered in freaky and theatrical fashion and has inspired other artists throughout history to infuse their music videos with dialogue. John Landis spoke at its screening at the Venice Film Festival’s 3D and told journalists that “It was a vanity video because Michael wanted to be a monster. And everything that came, evolved from that, it was spectacularly successful and I was totally surprised.”



"I love all races equally, I love all people of the world"

Contrary to popular belief, Michael wasn’t the person who invented the moonwalk—trying to discover its very origin would be akin to attempting to find out who invented bread—however, he absolutely was the one who brought the gliding dance move to the forefront of pop-culture. He was shown the footwork by Jeffrey Daniel of R&B vocal group Shalamar, and his decision to debut it at his 1983 taping at the Motown 25 was arguably one that rocketed him from being simply one of the stars to the star of his time. His brother, Jermaine, attested to this and clarified that it was down to his ingenious sense of spontaneous timing,

"Everything that you saw him do, he made it up on the spot."

It’s unquestionable that MJ was a pioneering dancer. The moves he brought to the world and the remarkable choreography and routines that were used throughout his shows and videos were very much a new introduction to the scene and he no doubt rocked the industry. Every move was distinctive and expressive and every remaining photograph of his performances are accompanied by the resonances of his iconic sound.

In an online audio chat, October 26th, 2001 Michael described what the world of dance meant to him:

Question: "How do you come up with a dance move, and how long does it take for you to put the choreography for a song together?"

Michael Jackson: "I pretty much just get in a room and I start to dance, and uh, I don't create the dance, the dance creates itself, really. I'll do something and I'll look back on tape and I'll go, 'Wow,' I didn't realize I had done that. It came out of the drums. Dancing is about interpretation. You become the accompaniment of the music. So when you become the bass of Billie Jean, I couldn't help but do the step that I was doing when the song first start, because that's what it told me to do. You know, if I turn around, spin, stop, move my legs to the side and then lift up the collar of my shirt, that's for that moment, it's an accompaniment."


Black or white?

"[Racism] is cruelty, it's ugly and I hate it. You are my brother. They are my brothers. If you are black, white, Arab... we are all the same. I love all races equally, I love all people of the world."—Michael Jackson, TV Interview with children in Tunisia, 1996

The interest surrounding Michael Jackson’s racial identity was a prevalent factor throughout much of his life. He was a black man whose skin colour changed to a significantly lighter shade, and relatively quickly too. Onlookers would be forgiven for questioning whether the sudden change was a rejection of his heritage and identity but in fact the opposite was true. Jackson’s skin was losing its pigment due a condition called Vitiligo and he rebuffed the media’s skin-lightening accusations constantly, calling it a “Complete conspiracy.”

Michael performing part of the "panther dance" during his Black or White music video

Notably, the lighter Jackson’s skin became the more he would nod towards his ever-present blackness and his politicised music reflects that. Strewn throughout his Dangerous album is the focus on black culture, music and style which was more of a tribute than he’d ever made before. The imagery in his Black or White video not only displays people of colour as people of royalty and superiority (which at the time was less than rarely done), but his “panther dance” was so emotionally charged with anger, sexual energy and frustration with oppression that an enormous litter of complaints were made, and four minutes of the video were subsequently cut.

John Landis gave his opinion to The Times, "The epilogue is really a performance piece by Michael Jackson that can stand totally on its own," and it really has stood the test of time. Jackson’s unwillingness to conform to a racially and sexually repressive society has inspired an uncountable number of artists which is still so apparent today.

During an interview with Oprah Winrey, she asked if there was any truth to the rumours that he wanted a white boy to play him in a Pepsi advertisement, suffice to say he was not impressed:

"That is so stupid. That’s the most ridiculous, horrifying story I’ve ever heard. It’s crazy. I mean why? Number one, it’s my face as a child in the commercial. Me when I was little. Why would I want a white child to play me? I’m a black American. I’m proud to be a black American. I am proud of my race. I am proud of who I am. I have a lot of pride in who I am and dignity."


Later Life

It’s no secret that Jackson endured more than his fair share of critique. From a long, arduous child molestation trial to his personal appearance and his parenting style, the public and media were quick to jump to conclusions and chastise Jackson even if—especially in the instance of the trial—he was proved innocent.

This constant barrage of hate had a lasting effect on this sensitive soul and his subsequent distrust for the media mixed with cravings for love other than crazed fans often left him feeling isolated.

“Michael was charming, sweet, lovely – but damaged. He came down to my home and ...we closed all the curtains and had lunch. He said it was the first time he’d sat down and had a meal with people for 10 years. He would always eat on his own.”—Elton John

giving tree.gif

During the documentary Living with Michael Jackson where Martin Bashir interviewed him over a span of 8 months, a glimmer of Michael’s innocuous disposition was shown through his excitement about showing his “Giving tree” where he claimed to have written many of his songs. Ultimately the documentary was disliked by Jackson for his portrayal and many people stay divided on the star’s true character but, if anything, it shows the raw purity, sadness and childlike nature that embodied the complicated spirit who was Michael Jackson. One thing remains certain though, with the light his considerable virtuosity gave the world, he is truly the King of Pop.


To see more of Michael Jackson and his life visit the National Portrait Gallery for their new exhibit, Michael Jackson: On The Wall, London: 28 June—21 October 2018

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