How Should We Mourn Michael Jackson?
Faced with the aggrandizing media spectacle that's ensued since Michael Jackson's death last week, I can't help but wonder if we aren't experiencing some kind of collective cultural amnesia. The sudden, overly reverential elevation of Jackson's body of work and life these past few days is an odd turn to say the least, and in that sense a fitting end to the highly unusual life of very peculiar -- and yes, uniquely talented -- man.
For many of us, what we felt upon hearing of Jackson's death and what we've felt in the days since are things much darker and more complex than the endless coverage of celebrity tributes and inconsolable fans would suggest. But I'd wager that if Jackson supporters and Jackson defamers can agree on anything, it's that time has not been kind to 'The King Of Pop'. Much like another King -- Elvis Presley -- before him, Jackson achieved an almost unfathomable level of fame early in life and then rapidly collapsed beneath the psychic weight of dwindling record sales and his own overindulged eccentricities, in the end retreating to his own iteration of Presley's Graceland, Neverland Ranch. Since that fall from superstardom in the early 1990s, any media attention directed at Jackson has arguably had more to do with his legal woes, prescription drug addictions, odd behavior, and ongoing physical metamorphosis (which the singer publicly attributed to treatments for Vitiligo and Lupus, though there's little doubt that Jackson engaged in extensive retooling of his facial structure by way of plastic surgery), than it had to do with his fading musical talent. And I don't deny that talent was there -- it was, clearly. I'm just not entirely sure how to go about reconciling my appreciation for the music of the Michael Jackson of the 70s and 80s with the pity and confounded revulsion I feel for the Michael Jackson of the 90s and 00s.
That segmenting of the man... I of course realize it's a convenience, an attempt to disassociate his art from his curious and at times downright disturbing life, marred as it was by bizarre publicity stunts, outlandish affectations, and, in particular, a troubling obsession with children and childish things, which taken together served to make accusations of pedophilia seem all the more credible. The questions, suspicions, and halo of guilt lingered around Jackson long after he settled out of court with the 13 year old boy who publicly accused him of molestation in 1993 (reportedly to the tune of $22 million dollars). It's understandably difficult for many people to believe an innocent man would pay that kind of money to someone who falsely accused them of anything, let alone something as reputation-shattering as pedophilia. And so some of us can't help but feel that tension pulling at us, making the unrelenting media frenzy that seems hellbent on ennobling Jackson retrospectively practically unbearable. It's almost as if the hive-mind of the media actively wants to convince us that the past 15-20 years of dissipation, questionable behavior, and creative irrelevance didn't happen, and that we should all just pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, wash our brains together, and drink the damn kool aid already. But comments like these from MamaPop's post announcing Jackson's death provided a much different point of view:
I know he was talented and all that other stuff but to me once you
sexually abuse someone that does overshadow the other stuff. I also
think that he probably had a sad life and I am trying to focus on that
and the music today. That said. It is hard to do that and I am
I feel as though it is fine to be sad that a part of our childhood is dead. Still, I guarantee if one of our kids was hurt by this man, it would infuriate any one of us if the world mourned his death this way.
I'm not sure how I feel about this - he was a fabulous entertainer and he had a screwed up childhood that we can blame Daddy Jackson for - thanks Dad. But he was also accused of some heinous activities with young children and the issues surrounding the birth and the raising of his own children are questionable.
This is surprising. But, somehow, I can't seem to mourn the death of a multimillionaire pedophile.
Yeeeeah. And in all honesty I'm still trying to figure out just what I feel about all of this, what to make of all of it. But I will say that earlier today, as I was going through clips about Jackson in preparation for writing this piece, my daughter -- who had not the slightest idea of who Michael Jackson was -- asked what I was writing about. So in response I told her to come sit next to me on our couch, and I played this for her:
And really, what I felt most while watching that with my daughter was overwhelming sadness. It was easily the first time I'd seen the video in 10 years, and watching it gave me a startling jolt of nostalgia mixed with the strange sense of freshness that something long lost but unexpectedly rediscovered bears. I wasn't prepared for how handsome he is, or was, rather. How indescribably magnetic. In a way, I'd forgotten about that Michael Jackson. And as I watched I couldn't help but feel for the young, talented man Jackson was -- the one frozen for all time in that video, unmarred by terrible accusations, drug addiction, and the generalized trainwreck of his later years -- and think to myself that his two-decade-long degeneration from that bright star into what he eventually became is, indeed, something worthy of our collective sadness.