Music and man prove hard for fans to keep separate

Tuesday, June 14, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:55 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 4, 2008

Whether as a happy-go-lucky child of Motown or a one-gloved thriller, Michael Jackson has successfully moonwalked through a trendsetting musical evolution.

His personal life, however, has been a long, strange story that has both entertained and confounded the public. His acquittal on molestation and other charges Monday is the latest chapter in a history of plastic surgeries, unconventional marriages and troubling public acts.

“I don’t think a fiction writer could have come up with such a bizarre story as Michael Jackson’s life,” said Michael Budds, a music history professor at MU.

“Imagine if from the age of 5 people were screaming for you every time you went outside,” he said. “There’s no way you could grow up normal.”

But now that 12 people in a Santa Maria, Calif., courtroom have decided Jackson’s criminal case, a jury of his fans will have to judge whether they have had enough — whether the man’s abnormalities have degraded his music to the point where it’s no fun anymore.

“I respect him as an artist in the ’80s,” said Erin Tuttle, who works at Slackers CD’s and Games in Columbia. But, Tuttle said, “He seems like two different people between then and now. As a person, I think he’s a little weird.”

Budds, who teaches the popular “Jazz, Pop and Rock” course at MU, said that although Jackson is brilliant, he has followed a path of self-destruction familiar among musicians and public figures aloft on staggering heights of fame.

“There are many rock ’n’ roll icons you could compare him to,” Budds said, quickly listing Elvis, blues legend Robert Johnson and even composer Leonard Bernstein. Despite major successes, he said, “all types of musicians think they are abject failures and die bitterly disappointed with themselves.”

Dance instructor Jeanne Szkolka, who has listened to Jackson’s music for years and recognizes his popularity among dance students in particular, said that in her 10 years directing Columbia Dance Academy, she has often included Jackson’s songs in recitals.

Now, though, she is determined to avoid the discussing the pop star’s molestation charges with her students by removing his music from her business.

“You have to be able to separate what he did from who he is,” Szkolka acknowledged. “But that’s hard to do because he is so close to his music.”

For Budds, however, the separation between his music and personal life is clear.

“I believe that the details of Michael Jackson’s personal life will be only a footnote to the music,” he said. “His genius has become a part of our legacy, no matter what the verdict is. Jackson’s contribution to rock ’n’ roll is firm and will never go away.”

Missourian reporters Amanda Conner and Maggie Moran contributed to this article.

A portion of this report first aired Monday during the “ABC 17 News at 10.”

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