I've held off on posting anything so far because I don't know that I really have much to add to what's already been said. Being born in 1987, and growing up in a household where my mom played a lot of The Beatles but nothing from Thriller that I can remember, as a kid I never really knew the guy as anything other than the freak media fixture he'd become. Actually, I think I heard the Weird Al parodies of "Beat It" and "Bad" before the original songs themselves. Lame but true.
I can't recall exactly when, but as a kid I remember watching Jackson on the news at one point and my mom telling me he was black. For a second I couldn't wrap my mind around that. I wasn't aware of any of his pictures with The Jackson 5 or even from the early '80s. Even after I found out about his former appearance, I didn't get certain people's accusations of racism when it came to the negative media focus on him. All I saw and heard was a pale-white, effeminate weirdo with a creepy high-pitched voice, and the idea that the media focus on his bizarre behavior was at all fueled by racism seemed ridiculous.
Of course, if I'd been born a few years earlier I may have understood why exactly the guy had such a devoted following. When I finally got around to actually hearing Thriller in its entirety, I gained a lot of perspective. Growing up, I remember hearing a bunch of people say something to the effect of "yeah, the guy's got issues, but he's made some great music," but I never bothered to check it out for myself. I had shitty Limp Bizkit and Korn albums to listen to, like all the other cool middle schoolers. If I'd tried to listen to a Michael Jackson album back then, I probably would've just lumped it in with the boy band groups of the time that you were required to hate on.
To be honest, I can't say I've since become a big fan of MJ's work outside of Thriller, but what's great about that album is how it hasn't become a relic of its time. Actually, I'd say the albums he put out after it sound more dated. That's when you know you've made something transcendent. A song like "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" in particular would be just as mindblowing if it came out today. There's a bunch of old classic albums I've heard, rock or otherwise, where I recognize the impact and influence but personally can't get into for whatever reason. Along with all the records it broke, Thriller also happens to still be really fucking good after all these years, something you can't say for every historically significant album. And the fact that it's pop music carefully crafted to appeal to different demographics doesn't diminish its significance.
Of course there was no way he was going to top what Thriller did, but what's sad about a bunch of Jackson's later music, post-Dangerous especially, is how much it's infected by his public image. We're always told to separate the artist from the person, but with MJ it's not that easy. Hell, even the spoken parts on "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" and "P.Y.T.," both classic songs, can't help but remind me of the negative image of Jackson ingrained in my mind. And those are both from way before the really weird years. Later on, whether its the cringe-inducing easy-listening ballads, Jackson lashing out against his detractors on angry, mechanical songs that couldn't be further removed from his best work, or even regular love songs that're hard to take seriously, it's impossible to separate the man from the music. For me, anyway.
In the end, though, I'm just glad I eventually gained an appreciation for his musical legacy. Because my perception of Jackson as a kid was mostly limited to his public image, I used to always write off the diehard fans I saw on TV as crazed apologists. And yeah, some of them probably were. But now I know where the sentiment was coming from, even if I can't count myself among their ranks.