Michael Jackson. August 29, 1958 – June 25, 2009
There’s very little that hasn’t already been said about Michael Jackson. But I guess I felt I still needed to say something about a man whose music left an indelible mark on music and human history.
I can’t imagine my childhood without the Thriller album. I can’t imagine living in a world that didn’t experience Michael Jackson fever in the 80’s: The Grammys and AMAs when he cleaned up, the 15 minute Thriller video debut –or when he turned a Pepsi commercial into a media event. The Michael Jackson phenomenon was a great escape from the Reagan era and it was a great part of my personal history with music. It feels strange that he’s passed because he was so much larger than life that it seemed impossible that he would ever die. To me, Michael Jackson always was, and such, he’d always be.
I was at my daughter’s graduation when I overheard a couple of parents talking about the rumors. Michael Jackson dead? That’s just a really fucked up rumor. I don’t believe it. At least I didn’t believe it until 1010 WINS confirmed it on my drive home. I was stunned. Whether he’d died at 90, 70 or 50, his death would have been just as tragic.
Statistically speaking, the young Michael Jackson didn’t have a bright future in front of him. Here’s a man who was the 7th of a total of 9 kids, the son of a industrial worker in Gary, Indiana. That their father Joe Jackson, was abusive is an understatement chronicled in made-for-TV movies and books and anecdotes. But ironically, if Joe Jackson hadn’t channeled that energy towards molding his kids into successful entertainers, they could have ended up like many other black families struggling in a dying industrial city. Imagine Janet and Latoya living on public assistance or Michael and Marlon being stick-up kids or hardened criminals? Even if they’d beaten the odds, the Jacksons could have been an “average” family: Tito the bus driver, Jermaine the accountant, Rebe the lawyer. There’s nothing wrong with it. And actually Michael Jackson, the engineer, might still be alive today, but it would have been a relative travesty because the world would never have been blessed with the talents of Michael and the Jackson family.
He gave his life to music.
Following the life of a child star is like taking a trip into a macabre fantasyland. The young star ostensibly has everything that any kid could want. They get access to incredible material wealth. Their media image grants them access to just about everything else money can’t buy. But for some reason, most child stars grow up to be grotesque, twisted caricatures of their younger selves. If they don’t make an outright Icarian fall from the pinnacle of their careers, they rarely regain the same level of success as adults.. Maybe it’s because while the rest of us can make mistakes and learn from them (or not) in the safety of relative obscurity, child stars’ mistakes are scrutinized and forgiven but never forgotten. Or maybe it’s because the public psyche keeps a fairly static impression of celebrity. Stars who come into show business as adults have a difficult enough time reinventing themselves. For most former child stars, shedding their pre-pubescent image rarely works. It seems a major part of their self-image is sewn from their public image, and when that public image is rejected, they don’t know how to deal with life. Whatever the reason, Hollywood has a penchant for eating its young and Michael Jackson was no exception. But Michael Jackson was a little different. Michael Jackson stayed a child star well into his 30’s.
The Rev. Al Sharpton was right in painting MJ as an important figure in the African-American civil rights struggle. There were plenty of black stars before him: Sidney Poitier, Diana Ross and Wilt Chamberlain come to mind. But none preceding him achieved the level of superstardom that Jackson did. Not many, if any white stars have reached the level of Michael Jackson superstardom, for that matter. Elvis was Elvis because there hadn’t yet been a Michael Jackson. More accurately, Elvis was Elvis because America wasn’t ready to allow their white daughters to fawn over a black man performing black music. Controversial hip-swiveling aside, Elvis was an acceptable though ridiculous alternative. So when Michael Jackson began to record and perform as an adult, he had obstacles, but he was well equipped to deal with them. Michael Jackson’s child-like, asexual, non-threatening veneer is what enabled him to become the man the world mourns today. That veneer is what made him the world’s first black superstar. America wasn’t threatened by Michael Jackson, the black man, because he was unlike any black man on the planet. And besides, the world already knew Michael Jackson: Little Michael, the incredibly charismatic kid who performed with his four brothers and could sing and dance his ass off. The older Michael was essentially Little Michael in an adult’s body and a great Jheri Curl. Even his voice hadn’t changed much. His childish demeanor was not only disarming, it added to his mystique. For a while, the freak show that was Michael Jackson worked for him. He hung out with child stars and a chimpanzee and was generally portrayed to have better relationships with animals and mother-figures than female love interests. But so what? Great artists are forgiven for their eccentricity and it was all eclipsed by his incredible success. But as his relative successes waned, the freak show took center stage. The plastic surgeries, the skin lightening, the asexual nature and eccentric and child-like demeanor were all weaponized. While the media prevents most child stars from moving from their childhoods, Jackson was attacked for trying to preserve it. Once the media realized that he wasn’t superhuman, because he wasn’t able to duplicate the successes of Thriller, he was expected to act his age -and human. Oh and look black again. Ironically, the fact that he broke the color barrier, making black superstardom attainable and acceptable, rendered his hair perming and skin lightening moot. But it’s only natural that he’d cling to being “different”. It’s what made him a success, so he pushed even harder. The more eccentric he became, the more the media demonized him. This was his undoing.
He asked to be left alone, but the truth is that he really needed the media. Having been a public figure since he was 10 years old, the media and public opinion were his barometer. They defined him. For at least the last 15 years of his life, neither were kind. The 30-something but still a child star Michael Jackson didn’t know how to deal with life. A part of his eccentricity may have been a put-on, but after a while, it’s apparent that he was in need of some counseling. It very could have spared him and others the uglier side of his legacy.
Regardless of what the coroner’s report tells of his death, Michael Jackson life was never truly his own. It’s truly a tragic personal story hidden behind the soundtrack of the some of the greatest music of our generation. He endured cruel treatment from the two entities that created and controlled him: his father and the media. But the truth is, it really couldn’t have happened any other way.
Michael Jackson lived a tortured existence on this planet for the benefit of countless others. He’s entertained billions of people to the tune of over 750 million albums sold. His benefit songs, concerts and plethora of philanthropic work has defined how artists “give back”. He kicked down the door for black superstars that followed him. Will Smith, Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan and many others owe a great deal to Michael Jackson. Barack Obama, to a certain extent is just as indebted.
Michael Jackson: the greatest entertainer of our time; a complex man died essentially a martyr on June 25th, 2009. Rest in peace, Mike.
Some of my favorite Michael Jackson songs (my top 5 in bold):
Dancing Machine w/ Jackson 5)
Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough
Rock with You
Workin’ Day and Night
Off the Wall
I Can’t Help It
Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin
The Lady in My Life
Another Part of Me
Man in the Mirror
Remember the Time
Scream w/ Janet Jackson
This Time Around w/ Biggie
You Rock my World
I finally got a chance to read what some of my favorite bloggers had to say about MJ’s death and I’m listening to a J.Period Mixtape (thx D.Penn) and realizing that my list is incomplete. And as good as it feels to rock out with Mike right now, I think his passing is tougher for me to take than I expected, even a couple days after the fact.
Wanna Be Where You Are
In the Closet
I Want You Back
Never Can Say Goodbye (thx Kiana from Proper Talks)
I’m sure this list will grow as I dig some more … but this is it for now.