A musical genius, yes, but Michael Jackson was also a master of performing roles. And his greatest may have been that of a de-sexualized, non-threatening black man who appealed to white audiences, David Gates writes in Newsweek. The King of Pop looked "blackest" on the cover of 1979's Off the Wall; by Thriller, he had started to develop a "precocious cuteness" that lacked the "adult sexuality" of a "swaggeringly heterosexual black male."
"No wonder, either, that the artifice eventually turned scary," writes Gates. Yet black Americans kept supporting him—perhaps because they "understood why Jackson was remaking himself"—and the black boy from Gary, Ind., united audiences as only Sinatra, Elvis, and the Beatles had done before. After Jackson "has come absolutely no one, however brilliant or however popular, who couldn't be ignored by vast segments of an ever-more-fragmented audience."