As you have to have been an isolation booth or under extreme sedation not to have heard about Michael Jackson dying today, I shan’t bore you with details. I can only imagine we are in for a circus of craptacular proportion as every hanger-on involved in his life emerges from the woodwork to make a quick recession buck on their Exclusive! Access! to His! Twisted! Life!
Just contemplating it makes me want to take a long nap.
You know, I didn’t appreciate MJ’s music until late in life, really, because for me books and movies were first. Pop music only came along for me when I started directing theatre in earnest in my early twenties. Oh sure, I’d heard the songs – who hasn’t heard the songs? But pop music was intellectual for me, not emotional. It was in the background. It held a lesser status than soundtrack, because at least soundtrack had a correlation to plot. I didn’t really start rocking out in the privacy of my own home, shrouded in the veil of a walkman, until it was already the dawn of the discman age. So I’m not speaking from deep childhood associations, like TNC, when I speak of him.
But tonight I’m listening to Thriller and thinking about mortality, the way I bet a lot of you are – in my case not just because of MJ but because of some things that are going on personally. And just to pass the time, I’m reading the ongoing internet discussion on the Critical Question raised by these events: Is Michael Jackson A Legendary Talent or a Child Molester Doomed To Hell?
Were you to force on me the question, though, here is what I could say:
I am not interested in armchair jurors’ assessments of virtue here, in either direction. I think we can say, for sure, that something smelled, over there.
I think we can also say for sure that this was a person who had along history of emotional problems and although I also usually hate armchair diagnoses, more than his share of mental illness. Mental illness to which his wide cast of hangers-on and leeches had obviously turned a blind eye or sought to enable before it began to be clear how very, very disturbed he was. He became emblematic of the way that an entertainment career chews you up and spits you out, and he had spent an awful long time in those teeth by the time we all saw the jig was up.
But then I watch old videos of him on YouTube now in sheer wonder at his dancing. Pure embodiments of joy in the world are few and far between, and because of that I think we have to treasure them.
And that’s all I’ve got, on him.
But as I was trawling around reading commentary on this I came across one incredibly astute idea – that the reason so many are upset is because MJ became, for so many people, symbolic of the end of childhood. When a lot of MJ fans were children, he was incandescent, smoothly moonwalking across the stage, aware of every muscle in his neck. When they were adults, he was a potential sexual predator with a face they had difficulty reconciling with the person they once worshipped. Fallen idols we can get used to, but MJ presented such a stark relief because he was so immensely popular, and his fall from grace so far. Sometimes I think the reason so many people find it so upsetting is because it feels like we’ve been forced to watch him fall off a cliff for years now, without any hope that he would land softly.
Wasn’t it just the other day I was talking about human beings as ciphers? I joke, somewhat, here because MJ brought this on himself on some level. When you are a celebrity, and particularly when you court the status of cultural icon in the fervent sort of way that MJ did, you sign up to be a symbol. You are offering yourself as the embodiment of someone else’s dreams, of their Paths Not Taken. You get to play the fantasy they have of themselves – if they were really just someone they wanted to be instead of what they are.
That is a mighty high standard to live up to even when you’re not as utterly ruined as this man was by the ripe old age of 30. I wouldn’t want to try it, I tell you what.
But the thing I want to say is this: there’s no either/or here, guys, and no prize at the end of the referendum. Your thumbs up or thumbs down means almost nothing in the grand scheme of addressing a person’s life. There seems to be this rush to either coronate or crucify someone after death these days, and I don’t quite understand it. In my highest moments of feminist rage it is still puzzling to me. My spidey sense knows there is good and there is evil in the world, but thinks it is incredibly rare to find a person singularly devoted to either.
And so I’m still listening to Thriller on repeat right now, and getting up every once in awhile to dance around my lonely apartment – though not half so elegantly as he did.