Why He's a Thriller

Michael Jackson's songs, steps and sexy aura set a flashy beat for the decade

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And he dances. He shuts himself up at the house in a room that has no mirrors—"Mirrors make you pose," he has said—and cuts loose to his own music or to the Isley Brothers' Showdown, practicing what Dancer Hinton Battle calls "moves that kill. It's the combinations that really distinguish him as an artist. Spin, stop, pull up leg, pull jacket open, turn, freeze. And the glide, where he steps forward while pushing back. Spinning three times and popping up on his toes. That's a trademark, and a move a lot of professionals wouldn't try. If you go up wrong, you can really hurt yourself."

Three old pros are fans too. "I think he's terrific," says Director-Choreographer Bob Fosse. "Clean, neat, fast, with a sensuality that comes through. Maybe he's more a synthesizer than an innovator, but it's never the steps that are most important. It's the style. That's what Michael has." Gene Kelly talks about Jackson's "native histrionic intelligence and his great wit. He knows when to stop and then flash out like a bolt of lightning. There are a lot of dancers who can go 90 miles an hour, but Michael is too clever for just that." From Fred Astaire comes perhaps the ultimate tribute: "My Lord, he is a wonderful mover. He makes these moves up himself and it is just great to watch. I think he just feels that way when he is singing those songs. I don't know how much more dancing he will take up, because singing and dancing at the same time is very difficult. But Michael is a dedicated artist. He dreams, thinks of it all the time. You can see what the result is."

Show business accepts innocence only if it can be sentimentalized; Jackson's world of fantasy is easier to dismiss with malicious gossip than understand with sympathy. "On some level, I don't even know whether it's conscious or not, Michael knows that he has to stand off the demands of reality and protect himself," Jane Fonda points out. Jackson spent more than a week with Fonda on the set of On Golden Pond, talking far into the night about "acting, life, everything. Afrinight about "acting, life, everything. Africa. Issues. We talked and talked and talked. His intelligence is instinctual and emotional, like a child's. If any artist loses that childlikeness, you lose a lot of creative juice. So Michael creates around himself a world that protects his creativity." And the world outside is intrigued: about that rhinestone glove, for instance, that he has taken to affecting of late. Whatever their significance may be to Michael, gloves neatly, wittily—and, one hopes, consciously—deflect seriousness and reflect two of Michael's most publicized obsessions. A glove, even one with 1,200 rhinestones, suits Astaire-style topper and tails; it is also standard issue for many Disney cartoon characters.

In its fine details as well as its broadest aspects, Michael Jackson's dream world has been under construction for 25 years, and its chief architect has not rested yet. Katherine Jackson likes to say her family got into show business because the only other available outlet for communal fantasy, the television, broke one day. "You know children; if they don't have TV to watch, then they have to do other things," says their mother. She may be oversimplifying some, but a blown-out television is not so readily replaced in the home of a Gary, Ind., steelworker with a family to feed. "The dancing came natural," their mother adds. Soon after, Joe Jackson began his intensive after-school coaching and practice sessions. Occasionally, as he recalls, the neighbor children Lobbed stones through the Jacksons' window and shouted performance critiques through the shattered mance critiques through the shattered glass. When inspiration flagged, Michael, then 5, would step right in and, says his mother, "make all the moves." One year later, Michael was the lead singer, and the boys were playing benefits and winning amateur contests.

Rufus Morgan, whose organization hired them to perform at a fund raiser for a firemen's ball, recalls, "Those boys were so fascinating to watch that everybody just gathered around the stage. We didn't dance. We watched and threw money." At Garnett Elementary School, Principal Gladys Johnson invited the boys to perform at an assembly. (Admission: 10¢. Proceeds split with the Jackson family.) About 1,200 students turned out, and this time around, not a rock was thrown. "The children really enjoyed that show," Johnson remembers. "I could not believe how they idolized those Jackson 5 boys." Johnson also kept an eye on Michael's academics, and once advised the fourth-grader to bone up on his math. "My manager," Michael replied, "will take care of my money."

By the time they cut a couple of singles for a local label called Steeltown in 1968, word of the young prodigies with a front man who could sing and move like Jackie Wilson had started to spread as far as Detroit and Motown. Calls were placed; connections were made. In November 1969, Motown released the first Jackson 5 single, I Want You Back, with a propulsive vocal by Michael, 11. The record reached No. 1 in twelve weeks.

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