In the immediate wake of Michael Jackson's death, his importance in the pop-culture pantheon is going to be hard to calculate. After all the tears have dried and the tributes have faded into memory, we should be able to get a clearer picture of Jackson's true contribution.
Even then, though, the truth might be obscured by self-mythologizing. After all, this is a man who, in 1995, spent US$30 million of Sony's money to ship statues of himself around Europe in order to promote an album (the modestly titled HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I). And who can forget Jackson's monumental gaffe at the 2002 MTV Video Music Awards? That year, the awards coincided with his birthday. As a tribute, Britney Spears introduced Jackson by saying she considered him "the artist of the millennium." Jackson misunderstood this to mean that he was being presented with a particularly auspicious honour. "When I was a little boy growing up in Indiana, if someone told me I'd be getting the Artist of the Millennium Award, I'd have never believed it."
A star before he reached puberty, Jackson spent most of his life in the public eye, although he spent much of his last decade trying to avoid the scrutiny of prying media. Beyond Jackson's ever-changing, freakish appearance; his outlandishly lavish lifestyle; his bizarre personal relationships; his business peccadilloes; and those nagging rumours about his inappropriate attraction to young boys, lie the facts about his career. Let's take a look at the numbers.
Not counting his group recordings with his brothers (first as the Jackson 5 and later as the Jacksons) or collaborations with other artists (such as "Say Say Say", a chart-topping duet with Paul McCartney), Michael racked up 32 Top-20 pop hits, with 13 of those reaching the number-one spot. He won 13 Grammy Awards and has sold some 750 million records worldwide. Jackson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice, once as a member of the Jackson 5 and once as a solo artist. The Guinness Book of World Records has called him the most successful entertainer of all time.
In terms of record sales, Jackson ranks right behind the Beatles and Elvis Presley. (And the perennially popular Bing Crosby, too.) His success is easy to quantify; his influence, not so much. After Presley, it's arguable that no single solo artist made more of an impact on pop culture. Jackson's singing, songwriting style, and dancing helped shape the musical landscape of the 1980s, and where would MTV have been without the groundbreaking videos for hits such as "Thriller" and "Bad"? In fact, 1983's "Billie Jean" was largely responsible for bringing down MTV's colour barrier; before it began airing that clip, the station excluded most black artists on the basis that they didn't fit its "rock" format.
As for Jackson's legacy, that's a story that continues to be written, and will carry on with the many artists who claim his work as a formative influence. That number includes Justin Timberlake, Usher, Chris Brown, Akon, Mariah Carey, Britney Spears, Ne-Yo, and countless others. These performers, in turn, have become some of the most popular of their day.
In 2007, Jackson reflected on his own legacy: "Music has been my outlet, my gift to all of the lovers in this world," he said. "Through it, my music, I know I will live forever." Yet another example of the King of Pop's hubris? Only time will tell.