Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown…

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How do you know you’ve made an indelible impact on culture?

Here’s how.

 

Listen: this story has been told so many times it is inextricable from the history of America. F. Scott Fitzgerald infamously (and incorrectly) declared that there are no second acts in American lives, but he was writing his own epitaph at the time. Little did he know that artists, and later, politicians, would perfect the Lazarus routine to the point that it was itself an art form of sorts.

Some great American artists could not handle the hype of their success, or remained paralyzed by the prospect of following up their uncanny grand slam (think Ralph Ellison after Invisible Man for the prototype). Some artists famously flamed out in part because of the pressure or else were consumed by their own demons (insert any number of movie stars and rock gods: James Dean and Charlie Parker remain the heavyweight champs of this routine). Some artists never had a choice in the matter: what can we say about the fact that Melville received less than a little acclaim after he wrote Moby Dick (even his good friend and contemporary critical darling Nathaniel Hawthorne–to whom Melville’s masterpiece was dedicated–thought little of the book, revealing him as either an exceedingly poor judge of genius or else an insecure literary prince who could not brook the very real competition Melville presented), and the man who may be our great American author (at least of the 19th Century) died broke, unknown, and embittered.

But none of these case studies can come close to approximating the one-of-a-kind wunderkind who became the King of Pop. His story is unique and will likely remain the triumphant and ultimately tragic cultural touchstone of our times. He had already lived at least three lives before he died, each one more improbable than the last.

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I will leave the career-spanning overviews and detail-oriented obituaries to the myriad individuals who are more qualified (not to mention more interested) than I to properly assess Jackon’s short and unhappy existence.

I can offer some opinions and recollections of what it was like, in real time, to witness Jackson’s awesome and irresistible trajectory. Any pronouncement, no matter how passionately proposed, is ultimately irrelevant regarding what constituted the ideal demographic for MJ’s  steady rise and sluggish fall. All I can say is that I was a kid in the ’70s and I remember  loving the Jackson Five songs and watching their cartoon reruns on TV. In other words, I was the ideal age to experience it, and still remember it. To assert that Michael was the all-American pop icon is both facile and also an indication of how naive and blissfully unaware people my age were to…well, too many things to count. But in MJ’s case, young fans were oblivious to the behind the scenes angst that crippled his childhood. That  he was abused is undeniable and well-documented. It also scarcely scratches the surface of the pressures and pains that were inflicted upon him. Even a cursory acknowledgment of what he’d been through, before becoming a teenager, should leave the most cynical critic astonished that he was able to create the lasting work he did, as an adult.

Flash forward to 1979: Off The Wall was the ubiquitous hit record and every time you turned the radio on you heard “Rock With You” (which, incidentally, sounds every bit as fresh and funky three decades later). MJ was on top of the world. It seems fair to suggest that nobody, including the young superstar, had any idea that he was about to own the world.

Thriller, of course, changed everything. It made all that came before it prelude and everything, especially the not-so-good things, that came after an epilogue. People who weren’t around then probably can’t imagine it, but Jackson was the biggest thing in the universe circa 1983 (and into 1984). It wasn’t even close: he was as prevalent as Coca Cola or McDonalds, and it was easy to avoid him as it was to avoid breathing. If you were alive, you were aware. Like it or not.

In fact, if Thriller had not happened, people from my generation might be fondly recalling how they skated to “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” at the roller rink. Or how great those Jackson 5 songs still sound. But, of course, Thriller happened. And we can (and will) talk about, and remember, all the songs, all the videos and the brand that Michael Jackson became during that span of commercial dominance.

But for now, I’m going to talk about the moment. You know what I mean: the performance of “Billie Jean” at the Motown 25 TV special.

I still get goosebumps every time I watch that. Now that he is gone, I’m sure each subsequent viewing (and there will be many, as I don’t expect I’ll ever tire of watching it) will be burdened with a melancholy even more profound than the one I would have felt anytime up until June 25, 2009. In other words, even before he passed on, watching a moment like this obliges one to relive one’s youth; it’s inescapable. So naturally one can’t help lamenting that loss of insouciance, of Innocence (with a capital I) and the many things time takes from us.

The previous generation had the moon landing; we had the moonwalk. That is not intended to be overly coy; I actually think I would invoke the moon landing regardless of the obvious word association. In my opinion, the few seconds that Jackson spent introducing that new dance move to the world are the defining cultural moments of my generation. In fact, I can’t readily think of anything else that enters the discussion. People have spoken about the other MJ (Michael Jordan) having played basketball better than anyone else did anything. I feel we could find other examples (Daniel Barenboim playing Beethoven piano sonatas; Flannery O’Connor writing fiction; Glenn Beck being an asshole), but I would propose that this performance is the apotheosis of what a pop star can achieve. No one, before or since, has been better at being a star, at seizing the moment, at overtaking the world by force of will and talent, quite like Michael Jackson did that evening. What is truly remarkable is not merely how incredible it was, then, but how inimitably cool and untouchable it remains, now. Everyone saw that and everyone reacted to it. It was (and is) impossible to be wholly unaffected or unmoved by what happens during those five minutes. There are probably people (perhaps lots of them) who still won’t see the art or genius (and the many layers of that genius: the song itself–a slice of irrepressible pop perfection, his dancing, and the fact that he is lip-synching it) of this moment, but it’s simply not possible to remain indifferent. You can fail to acknowledge this the way you can fail to acknowledge the Grand Canyon, as you are being pushed over the edge, eyes shut and screaming all the way down.

A confession. I was not necessarily a fan. I certainly was able to appreciate that dancing, and that song (and any male my age who attempts to deny that he desperately wanted to perfect the moonwalk is lying through the acne-glazed haze of adolescent recollection). It was a bizarre time to be a teenager: all the girls in school loved Michael Jackson and all the guys loved Jim Morrison. Oh wait, that was just me? Well, as corny as I would have considered it for any dude to have a poster of MJ, I am not particularly proud to reconsider the prominent spread of leather-clad Lizard King photos on my bedroom wall. I say this only to underscore the impact MJ had at the time: I was well tired of the non-stop hype and ceaseless radio play (seven Top 10 singles?!), and it was simply beyond human capability to separate oneself from Thriller’s impact. You may not have loved it (you may not have liked it) but I have never spoken to anyone who actually hated it. I’m sure there is someone out there, who also hates the Sistine Chapel and The Lincoln Memorial. Or Moby Dick (just kidding, sort of.)

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We all know what happened next.

Icarus flew too close to the sun, and none of the bills he earned could ever break his fall.

I am also content to let the historians, the haters and the opportunistic biographers slash and snap at this detritus like piranhas in a feeding frenzy. I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest we’ll soon have more detail than we’d ever want to imagine about all the things that did (and didn’t) happen when the media cameras weren’t rolling. By the ’90s, it’s not a stretch to suggest his music took second billing to his increasingly surreal escapades.

And it’s at that point that we’ll be unable to resist the analogies. Neverland Ranch? Was Jackson the real life apotheosis of Citizen Kane? Perhaps he embodied the American tragedy implicit in the eponymous hero of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby? For me, those two works offer the finest, and final, take on how money and memory trump success and satisfaction. A person with a troubled past can never escape the shadow forever hanging over his present. Add almost unlimited power and all bets are off. And while Michael Jackson epitomizes the eternal child in search of a childhood he never had, his tragedy is both deeper and more disturbing. As such, I believe Jackson existed as a sort of inverse Dorian Gray. Of course that antihero traded his soul for eternal youth, but the evidence of his decay was hidden on the portrait he fastidiously kept from public view. Jackson’s metamorphosis (the physical and spiritual) unfolded right in front of our often disbelieving eyes.

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Ebony and ivory, anyone? This transformation was somewhat beyond Dorian Gray because it was real, and this did not represent the comparatively straightforward (and, of course, fictional) deal with the devil: this was hubris facilitated by money and modern medicine. What Jackson did to himself would have been literally unimaginable a generation earlier, and perhaps been done with a greater degree of proficiency a generation later (that, of course, is an appalling commentary on how we’re “evolving” as human beings and what we can accomplish in the name of vanity). It was unseemly, it was embarrassing, and above all, it was unfortunate that it served to nourish the insatiable tabloid zombies who live to profit from the pain of others.

But more than a little of Michael’s anguish was self-inflicted. True, he engaged in an often futile effort to find things he could not have, but he did look for them, using the muscle his money provided to plow through the world, a fragile bull in a not-so-delicate China shop. Ultimately, the only thing he broke was himself. And even at his most irresponsible (or despicable, if only a handful of the charges he successfully settled out of court were legitimate), it was difficult not to feel intense pity for this child crammed inside a King’s body. Let the myopic arbiters of taste and the more prurient amongst us declare him a fool or a freak. Let the smug quoters of scripture remind everyone that it does not profit a man to gain the world and forfeit his soul. They should be reminded that the world got to him first. I feel nothing but sorrow for his poor, fractured soul and pray that his heart, at long last, is at peace.

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Comments

  1. It’s all so complicated, isn’t it? This is the first time I’ve REALLY mourned a celebrity death. I’m surprised by the depth of my sadness. I knew MJ first through Thriller- I became a fan of his earlier work later. But to say I was just a fan. . . I feel like I knew the PERSON, like I helped write those songs we know so well. When I was 12 I dragged my reluctant father on an airplane ride across the state of Florida to see the Jackson’s Vitory tour; for years I had a poster of Michael in a yellow v-neck sweater vest hanging in my bedroom. For a lot of us Michael (Thriller) defined our childhood. Everything that came later confused and disappointed me, but it never diminished my admiration for. . . his music? His talent? His charisma? Maybe just for the big, happy chunk of my childhood he claimed.

  2. mike shields says:

    I was just going to email you but I thought I would comment since my thought on this is actually a question that might be worthy of discussion: at what point in our society do we “discard” someone who has committed terrible acts? Granted, I was gone during the zenith of his influence on pop culture, but I still felt it both as an american in england with ties to the u.s. But also as a citizen in england where the phenomenon was also felt. So sure maybe I’m missing something. But while I can totally appreciate the sentiment that he’s a part of our history, and his music is a part of our lives’ soundtrack (which is ultimately about US not him), I also can’t help but think – as I watch people laud him, cry for him or – in your case – wish him well thayt the man was very likely a pedophile. Ok sure in our system you are legally innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. But in terms of common sense and the ecidence we know about, does anyone believe he wasn’t? And if so, this where my question comes to play: at what point can we all agree “this person is so reprehensible as a person that I find it distatseful to laud his work?” I mean, I think OJ is there. Sports center types find it hard to say anything good about what he did as a football player with caveating it. And most of the time, he’s just left out of the discussion (which, if you’re going purely on performance, is wrong.) At the height of the michael vick dog fighting story, it would have seemed ridiculous and to may offensive to have openly waxed sentimental about his “impact” and wished him well based upon his performance. What else we know about him “ruined” what we had previously liked about his performances. And that’s kind of where I’m at with MJ. Will I listen to his music? Sure. Have it in my ipod. That’s about me, and about my own memories. But wishing him well? That’s tough and I wonder how eeryone else seems to find it so easy. Lots of media have referred to his “high jinx,” “troubled past” and such without saying the facts – the guy lured children into his house and *possibly* destoyed their innocence and lives in a predatory maner that – if he was on “to catch a predator” on dateline – would cause a movement to have whatever form of balls he has left cut off. I personally think the media knew this was a huge story so why ruin it by bringing up that icky part too much and ruining it. So, where’s that line? Do we een have one? Do we really care? If you’re famous and a celebrity in a celebrIty culture, you can be a pedophile, you can murder people, you can be a racist – whatever – and our value system and collective moral compass isn’t really strong enough to care and say some people are too reprehensible as human beings to deserve our admirationa nd attention?

  3. MJ is such a tragic figure- we will probably never know the extent to which he was traumatized during his childhood- but it is evident in the adult he became. I’m sad for the talented little boy whose life became a circus- a freakshow- in a large part due to that abuse and/or other factors. It is a complicated isssue- I don’t think most people find it “easy” to overlook his possible (likely) pedophilia. I don’t. It’s depressing to think of the trauma his victims suffered- in the same way it is depressing to consider Michael’s own abuse and its aftermath.

  4. a. Part of what made Jackson a persona worth noting was his glorious and inescapable freakishness. That alone could never make him tragic, from my perspective. It’s kind of WHY I feel some nostalgic affection (and desire to champion him) in the first place.

    b. I’m deeply, deeply troubled by the fact that his “pedophilia” (technically, it’s hebephilia, but whatev)is assumed. Here are a LOT more of my thoughts on that: http://brownrabbittanning.blogspot.com/2009/06/freak-vs-perv-battle-for-public-opinion.html

    PS. Bonjour, Sean! A nice, sensitive piece here.

  5. Sean Murphy says:

    Wow, that’s great stuff Marjorie. I hope everyone who comes to this site checks out your piece!

    I think it’s safe to assume that, on one hand, we will have no shortage of “revelations” (the good, the bad, and especially the ugly) about what MJ did these last two decades; on the other hand, much of it can (and will) be exposed as the opportunistic trash it is. While I don’t expect the worst, I’m not quite as optimistic as others have been. More on this, later…

  6. Holland says:

    20 years from now, will we be voting which Michael makes it onto a US postal stamp? I would personally prefer to block any post 80’s Michael out of our collective memories.

  7. Sean Murphy says:

    Maybe we could compromise and put out the Tito stamp?

    http://blogs.nashvillescene.com/nashvillecream/Tito%20Jackson.jpg

  8. Can’t we have both? If memory serves, we had Young Elvis and Fat Elvis stamps.

    We can have Rock with You MJ, or Black or (Mostly) White MJ.

    I respect MJ and his accomplishments, but I’m glad that almost all stamps are self adhesive. I’m not going to want to lick the back of either.

  9. I (sadly) decided last night that MJ looks like a burn victim in one of his best videos- “You Rock my World”
    The choreography in that will change your life, though.

  10. This certainly is a complicated issue. After all the scandals unfolded I felt the need to divorce myself from the Michael Jackson I loved. I almost forgot the pure pleasure I got from his music and performing. The strange thing about his death is that it has allowed me to reconnect to that pleasure that for awhile seemed almost shameful to associate with. So now what-now that he is gone and no longer a potential threat is it o.k. to admit to loving him again-for his talent and what to do with the memories of what he became and what he might have done to innocent children.

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