Saturday, June 27, 2009

Michael Jackson: A Few Words To The Contrary

Once again, I'm confronted with a dichotomy between private tragedy and public grief. As I wrote last week, I have a close friend in the hospital with a brain tumor. This is someone I've known for almost twenty years; we've been co-workers, friends, and like brothers for nearly all that time. We've all been very worried and praying hard for his recovery, and yesterday his condition was upgraded to stable; he seems to be on his way back to making a recovery.

On the flip side, we have the worldwide outpouring of grief for Michael Jackson. I don't think there's a sentient being in the inner Solar System who is unaware that the self-styled "King of Pop" died Thursday at the age of 50--and the tears, the sobbing, the rending of clothes and gnashing of teeth heard around the planet is deafening. Crowds of people massing in cities around the world moonwalking in the streets and celebrating his life, statements of condolence from notables ranging from President Obama and Nelson Mandela to Elizabeth Taylor and Donald Trump, from Diddy and Usher to Paul McCartney; anonymous people wailing, screaming, and generally losing their fucking minds on YouTube over Jackson's death, prisoners in a Filipino prison staging a mass performance of "Thriller" today in Jackson's honor, and even the internet itself slowing to a crawl as news of his passing swept the planet.

The circumstances surrounding his death are, typically for Jackson, suspicious and mysterious. Why did he have a live-in cardiologist? To what extent--because there is no doubt about it--were prescription narcotics a factor in his demise? But the real issue to me is the impact his life had on others, and the disproportionate amount of grief exhibited at his passing. You'd think that MJ was the Messiah, the Mahdi, and the Second Coming of Jesus all rolled into one, to listen to the crap on both the MSM and the internet! Somebody please tell me, what the hell did he do to really help people? Besides the usual crap of "his music made me feel good!" "His songs were my life!", and other such tripe. Did he ever go to Iraq to entertain the troops? Did he ever give a free concert for AIDS or breast cancer research? How about a donation to the United Negro College Fund, or to UNICEF? Yes, he did many acts to help children, but we know (or can guess) what that was really about. And how much more mileage can he get out of "We Are The World," anyway? That was twenty years and several noses ago! More importantly, did Jackson ever publicly admit his pedophilia and seek help?

Of course, the answer to all of these questions is a resounding "HELLL NO!" Michael Jackson was, in truth, an enormously rich, childishly irresponsible, self-indulgent, drug-addicted, self-hating, and sexually perverted individual, who pissed away literally hundreds of millions of dollars in the pursuit of self-satisfaction, and legal defense of his perversions. Could anyone else have his penis described in detail by a child, settle out of court, and not go to jail? Could your average person--hell, your average multimillionaire--have so many plastic surgeries that they no longer looked human, yet be accepted and adored by millions around the world? Could anyone else walk into a high-end jeweler or automobile dealer, and walk out with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of cars or jewelry without paying for it, never pay for the goods at all, be sued for them, and then be able to repeat this performance over and over again?

Yes yes yes, I know: the privileges of fame. And Jackson was not alone in this behavior (*cough* MC Hammer), although he was one of the most celebrated examples of it. And before you call me a Jackson hater, let me say that I too grew up on his music, and enjoyed his songs and performances. But being an entertainer, in my mind, does not nearly compare to the contributions that a teacher, a doctor, a scientist, or an educator make to humanity. Michael Jackson may have spent nearly as much money on cars, clothes, real estate, jewelry, and "toys" (such as his own private amusement park, complete with elephants) as the dictator of a small banana republic, but what did he really give to the world, besides transient entertainment and lifetime employment for an army of lawyers?

The manner in which popular culture idolizes, acclaims, and obsessively tracks the lifestyles of the rich and famous is an old target, and criticizing the disproportionate attention given to media stars can make the speaker seem like a cranky, jealous curmudgeon. However, the old saw about "a coarsening of culture" has some truth to it. Celebrating and excusing the egregious, even criminal behavior of some music and movie stars, disproportionately glorifying them out of all bounds and continuing to support their behavior through the purchase of their products, their music and movies, does nothing for the common good, and makes despicable behavior seem common. People, please--he was just a singer and dancer! An enormously talented one, true, and a ground-breaking performer, but does anyone remember exactly what he did with his fame? Besides his victims?

Bill Wyman wrote yesterday in Salon:
In the obituaries, writers will savor Jackson's talents, which were unquestioned; his ambition, which was otherworldly and a thing of awe; and his heyday, which lasted really just a few years, and encompassed perhaps two and a half albums. Others will reflect on the tragedies visited upon him and those he visited on others.

I think it's fair to classify Kurt Cobain's death as one brought on by medical problems, specifically the roiling interaction of depression and addiction. Jackson's death is in this sense more purely a suicide, just as Elvis Presley's was some three decades ago. Like Presley, Jackson at some point stepped through a door, closed it, and turned the key. What went on behind the door we'll never know.
A suicide, yes, but an assisted one, I believe. When I compare the pleasure his music gave to me and others to the damage he caused in his life, I can come to no other conclusion than this: MJ was an enormous talent, and a gigantic asshole. And as for our society, which idolizes and excuses individuals like him, that makes us all assholes, too.

A reader corrects my assertion that Jackson made few donations to charity; apparently, at one time he actually set a record for the most charities supported by a pop star, donating to 39 separate organizations and foundations. However, I believe in noblesse oblige, the idea that "with wealth, power and prestige come responsibilities." The fact that Michael Jackson donated some of his enormous wealth to charity is an expectation for me, not a reason for praise.


Free-Spirited Ruminations said...

Nicely put...the man was extremely talented and many of us grew up with him. But, the news channels act as if nothing else is going on in the world - and some of the sobbing theatrics in the streets seems to indicate that some people have lost their damn minds. This isn't the second coming of Christ. Yes, he was talented - and strange - but he was still just a pop star.

risingsn said...

I agree with some of what you wrote. But actually he gave enormous amounts to different charities. There was a record of him giving to 39 charities very generously.

I think nostalgia is such a powerful thing. Sometimes we can have such strong emotions about our childhoods that it even eclipses many of our adult experiences.

When it was first announced that he passed I thought, "well this one is one I won't get that choked up over" and then I started to watch old clips and I found myself tearing up. I mourn for the little boy that got lost, the young man who despised himself so much that he nearly obliterated all of his features. And I tear up over the songs which chronicle different eras of my life as well.

However, I will not shriek and tear my hair out over it. But I did watch some shows and videos. What he became is something else entirely. There is no sadness in that passing from the world. But he wasn't always that way.

Strong said...

risingsn: I've acknowledged your corrections in an update. However, his charitable activities do not buy him an excuse for his sins, in my book. True, he wasn't always the cloistered freak that he became, but he did turn into one, and that was his burden. I too mourn for the little boy with the big talent, but "with great power comes great responsibility."

Kris C said...

I have to agree with most of this. As I said yesterday. He was an amazingly talented man with a tragically defective life. I don't find a lot of room for forgiveness for failing to make yourself something better that what a bad childhood molded you into, but I can find a place to understand the man's own pain through out his childhood and the tragedy there we'll never know the whole of.

The man never grew up, he never lived his childhood. He was trapped in some bizarre hell trying to live his life from the beginning as he would have dreamed it to be. I think that there was mental illness here as much as a self-guided path to destruction.

risingsn said...

You're right, of course, that you can't buy your way out of sinning.

I see it like this:

If you had a sibling that had a drug habit and turned to crime and then passed away without resolution there would still be a part of you that would mourn for that which is lost or what could have been. That is how much of the world sees it. They don't condone his later actions, they certainly don't understand them.

And TV is gonna keep feeding us Michael Jackson shows as long as they get ratings for it. As long as there's an appetite for it they will be serving MJ 24/7. Just like Denny's. Oh, no. I guess they wouldn't have served him at all. Well maybe after the skin bleaching. Hmmm....