I, like many of my peers, have spent the better part of the last three weeks listening to a steady stream of news and music of, about, and by Michael Jackson. For this reason, I, like many of my peers, am just now appreciating what a marvel and meteoric phenomenon he was, and just how quickly he was chewed up and spit out by the pop culture machine; for I, like many of my peers, had a single perception of him that focused only on the eccentricities that became his enormous and ultimately fatal cross to bear.
On June 25, 2009, Michael Joseph Jackson, commonly known as the King of Pop, suffered cardiac arrest and died shortly after. Thus began a tsunami of news coverage, as often happens with these things, and within the hour, having been tipped off by supercredible TMZ.com, nearly every channel and radio station was covering what would become a landmark event in our time. Within two hours, every clever Carl and tricky Ricky in America was sending out jokes to their friends via text message.
Having spent the better part of three weeks pondering the appropriateness of pedophilia jokes at this time, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s simply unnecessary. Yes, we all laughed at the jokes after he died, but the more that comes out about this tragically misunderstood character, the more disturbing it gets. Michael Jackson was thrust into the spotlight at the age of five by an abusive, competitive father who never let up. While we will never know what truly happened, it seems clear to me that he never progressed beyond a very young emotional age. This man – who was beaten into stardom by his father, who was hypersexualized at the age of 16 by those surrounding him, who was such an enigma to everyone – was not a man at all.
Brooke Shields’s speech at his memorial was particularly touching, because it allowed a glimpse into the early days of Jackson’s superstardom, and the isolation and loneliness he felt. She, too, was thrust into the spotlight, then hypersexualized at an early age, and this made her one of very few people who ever understood him. Listening to her talk about him, about his smile and unique ability to make others around him happy, was extremely moving and offered a brief glimpse into his personal battle. He was torn apart by everyone in his life except a precious few, Shields included. With the fame brought on by Thriller, Bad, and Dangerous, also came an unending onslaught of media attention.
Which brings us to the unfortunate allegations of the early Nineties and mid ‘00s. Do I personally think he molested children? No, not necessarily. As I stated earlier, I believe he was in a state of perpetual childhood, due to the early onset of fame and attention, and the child abuse from his father. For a 10-year-old, a sleepover is a fun, exciting time. For many, it offers a feeling of freedom from adults and authority, because you can stay up with your friends and play as long as you want. Is it acceptable behavior for an adult male to sleep in a bed with a young boy? No. I do not believe Michael Jackson acted responsibly or tactfully when he was entertaining boys at Neverland, but I believe that’s the point. He didn’t know any better. He was stuck at the critical age of 10, never having learned to socialize or act like an adult.
He also had other eccentricities, such as the changing color of his skin and his presumably eventful history of plastic surgery. He claimed to the end that the look of his face was just the natural process of people changing, but it is obvious that he did not look even remotely like the man he once was. There were more incidents – the marriages to Lisa Marie Presley and Debbie Rowe, the secretive nature of his personal life, dangling his baby off the balcony, dancing on top of the car at his trial – all of which point to a man driven partially insane by our own culture of celebrity obsession.
To me, the biggest tragedy of all this is that I was born in 1986. Most of my peer group was born within two or three years of this. By that time, Michael Jackson’s journey from groundbreaking musical genius to media sideshow had already begun. By the time I became cognizant of pop culture and began forming crude opinions about popular figures, he was already a nutjob who touched little boys. By the time I was able to really appreciate music, he was a running joke. Michael Jackson was so much to so many people, and so little to so many more. But what I have taken away from this whole experience, and what I will remember him for, are the things I learned about him in the last three weeks.
I learned that Michael Jackson was a brilliant musician and lyricist, with a gift for making unmistakably catchy music that makes people worldwide want to dance. His lyrics ranged from sexy to inspiring, with everything in between. “The Way You Make Me Feel” is a song that makes you feel the lust along with him, and who could forget “We Are the World”? To this day the song “Will You Be There” feels more like a hymn to brotherly love than a pop song, and both the lyrics and the music reflect the hymn-like feel of the song. His music and words will live on forever.
I learned that Michael Jackson was a dancer and choreographer who did things with his body that are as unbelievable and awe-inspiring today as they were when he was introducing them in the early 1980s. I would challenge anyone who says, “I’ve never tried to moonwalk” to a lie detector test.
I learned that he was the first black artist played on MTV, and not only that, but there was a 10 year period where any video not done by Michael Jackson took a back seat to any of his. I learned exactly how groundbreaking this was because it did not seem to matter to me that he was black, and that’s the point.
I learned that people in the former USSR and East Germany look to Michael Jackson as a beacon of freedom and hope, because he represented the world of Western freedom through music that could break through the great barriers of the Berlin Wall and even more imposing Iron Curtain.
Most of all, I learned that Michael Jackson was one of those rare artists who makes you view not only the world, but also yourself, in a different light. No matter how much controversy he caused in life, and no matter how much more he is sure to cause in death, that will be his greatest legacy. He was the world’s greatest entertainer, and he changed the world by changing us.