(Reflections on the passing of Michael Jackson, not quite six years later. Originally posted June 27, 2009.)
With his recent death, Michael Jackson is again the King of Pop, with his albums selling faster than they have in years. He also dominates a huge portion of the news cycle with retrospectives, analyses, and conjecture, as well as other articles on just how much bandwidth this latest bit of celebrity mortality is occupying. I'm sure if he were alive, Jackson would be pleased with all the attention.
I certainly can't call myself a fan of his music, but like Paula Simons said in the Edmonton Journal this morning, his tunes have been a part of the soundtrack of my life. From watching the old Jackson 5 cartoon show on Saturday mornings and getting my first exposure to the Motownalicious "ABC", through the ubiquitous 80s videos like "Billie Jean" that helped to define both the decade itself and the advent of Music TeleVision, and on to multiple comebacks and increasingly deranged behaviour and descent into self parody, Michael Jackson has been there: singer, actor, news item and punchline.
When I was working at GE a couple of years ago, they had a company talent show at lunch one July 4th (since that meant it wouldn't be very busy), and a group of 12 new hires came out with an air-guitar/dance schtick that had them keeping their hands behind their backs until they snapped them forward in unison to reveal the single rhinestoned glove they all wore, after which they proceeded to do about two minutes of the zombie shuffle from the Thriller video, still one of my all time favourites.
I was struck by two things: first, that this was a gutsy group that I immediately liked because I can assure you, none of them had danced professionally. Secondly, since most of the group were under the age of 25, that meant very few of them had even been alive when the video made its debut in 1982.
What will Jackson's legacy be? As a record-breaking entertainer with a reputation as one of the last century's most electrifying performers, or as a disturbed creep whose fame may have allowed him to re-visit his childhood torments on other innocents?
Anyone who knows me knows that the abuse of children is a topic which holds considerable anger content for me, and not a lot of grey areas. My hero is Andrew Vachss, a man with whom I have almost nothing in common with except a hatred of those who prey on children. But the truth is this: we will probably never know whether Michael Jackson's bizarre behaviour was evil, misguided or just naive. While it is true that those who experience torture as children are at an increased risk to do the same to others, and that Joe Jackson is a long ways from winning any celebrity parenting awards, it is just as true that the King of Pop's wealth and fame made him a target for all manner of extortion and blackmail. While I do think it was incredibly irresponsbile for parents to leave their children in the care of a man with so many obvious idiosyncracies and warning signs, it is not impossible that here was a person just trying to recapture the childhood he felt he never had. It is not beyond the realm of possiblity that the sleepovers and such were no more than that, and that he viewed children as peers because they were the least likely to exploit him or seek to gain anything.
But, like I say, we'll never know, and without knowing, those parents who ran to the media first and the authorities last have a credibility gap that Evel Knievel would have a hard time getting over. There are certainly a lot of law enforcement types in southern California who feel he crossed the line, but were not able to prove it. Jackson's dream team of celebrity law were not really able to dis-prove it either, so make of that what you will.
So, what do we know? Not much. Even now, rumours are starting of how Jackson's admiration and emulation of Elvis Presley (including but no limited to marrying his daughter Lisa Marie) may have led him to fake his own death, which has a kind of appeal to it I have to say. Lord knows the man was no stranger to having his face worked on, so returning to the public eye wouldn't even be out of the question. How long before someone reports seeing Michael Jackson eating a Creamsicle on a park bench in Orlando, or playing chess in Washington Square Park?
I think most of us can agree with this: the man had a troubled childhood tied inexorably to early fame which catapulted him into a level of celebrity that may never be equalled as our media continues its fractured mitosis. This fame made us privy to an increasingly bizarre continuum of behaviour that ranged from the amusing ("Your best friend is a chimp named Bubbles?")to the terrifying ("What the hell is he doing on a balcony with a baby...holy crap!").
How do I feel? Strangely saddened. The world has lost an enigmatic entertainer who made a lot, and I don't mean a lot as in 'there were a lot of people at the mall today' but millions, of people happy. To his friends and family, fans and followers, I give my condolences, and wherever Michael Jackson ends up, I wish him peace.