HOLLYWOOD — Michael Jackson was the first great pop star whose career was shaped by television — not merely showcased by it, like those of Elvis Presley and the Beatles— and inseparable from the medium. He was indebted to it and influenced it in turn. Across his four-decade career, he was often someone to listen to, but he was always — for better and sometimes for worse — something to see. A lifetime of pictures came back into focus Thursday, as cable news outlets ran bits of old videos and Facebook bloomed with links to YouTube clips.
He made his first television appearance in December 1969 on "The Ed Sullivan Show," on the occasion of the first Jackson 5 single, "I Want You Back." The sound of that single, which went to No. 1 the next month, is astounding — like Jackson's moonwalk, it seems to deform time. But the song told only part of that story: There is the dancing and the colorful funk of the costumes, and above all there is the face of Michael Jackson. The song is about a loss, but there is only elation in his performance. He looks fearless, clear-eyed, beautiful and in charge. That he was only 11 years old — you couldn't ignore it, and it was completely beside the point.
A family-friendly band then, before they became a thing of tabloid fascination — expressed in a 1992 TV movie, "The Jacksons: An American Dream" — the Jacksons were made for television and appeared there often in the twilight of variety. (They also became an animated cartoon, like the Beatles before them.) But as time went on, as Michael grew taller and unpredictably different, they seemed to fade. Things were changing, but you couldn't see where it would lead.
That was settled on the night of the 1983 TV special "Motown 25: Yesterday, Today and Forever," in which he appeared with his brothers, but also, for five minutes, claimed the stage for himself, performing a song not released on Motown — "Billie Jean" — seizing upon the occasion to remake himself utterly. (He already had begun to remake himself physically.) The appearance replayed the look and moves of the song's video; he wore a suit of spangles, a fat white glove, pants cut short to show his ankles and make his long legs look even longer. The dancing was encyclopedic, one move following hard on another: spins, crouches, kicks, Bob Fosse angles, Gene Kelly silhouettes and of course, the new moonwalk.
But the smile of the happy kid or the earnest entertainer was gone, replaced by a pleading anger that thereafter would become the dominant note in his self-presentation. It was a beginning, and it was also somehow the beginning of the end.
His influence and importance were still to grow, nevertheless. Jackson not only broke the color line at MTV, which, having styled itself as a visual version of white FM radio, had declined to play videos by black artists; he changed music video itself. He amplified its scale, with ambitious, long-form, cast-of-dancing-dozens mini-movies whose influence is still seen. You can argue the artistic merits of "Thriller," with its corps of zombies, or "Beat It," with its "West Side Story" rumble, but they brought storytelling and Hollywood production values to what had been a medium of glorified infomercials.
As his personal strangeness began to eclipse his music, as his public career diverged from his private life, he became a person seen and not seen. The videos showed you a person in control, or at least desperately asserting it; the news clips showed you a man in a mask, running scared. A 30th anniversary CBS special in 2001 showed bursts of energy, but he had become ghostly long before he died, pale and paper-thin and skeletal.
And yet the spirit of that first "Ed Sullivan" date sustains: On Monday night's premiere of the fourth season of "America's Got Talent," the EriAm Sisters offered "I Want You Back" as an audition piece, with 11-year-old Haben Abraham taking the lead, alive and excited and at the beginning.