Sunday, June 28, 2009
Who Killed Michael Jackson?
"The pure products of America go crazy." William Carlos Williams, 1923
Only days ago, we were discussing the crackdown on dissent in Iran, a world mired in an economic slump, a pending Congressional showdown on health care, and the Argentinian adventures of Governor Mark Sanford, and then suddenly all that talk stopped. Michael Jackson had died. In another of those "where were you" moments, my wife rushed in with the news, and we settled in to watch the sad pageant of grief and shock. It takes a person of enormous influence to halt the 24 hour news cycle in its' tracks, and the filmed reports of people pausing worldwide, for even a moment, to acknowledge the loss, proves Jackson was such an individual. Love him or hate him, this single artist's contributions to popular culture are immeasurable.
Michael had become a touchstone in people's lives. Multitudes grew up with him, and though it's hard to imagine, there's another generation who missed his heyday in the spotlight. Can it really be 25 years since the release of Thriller? I always place myself between the bookends of Elvis, who was 12 years older, and Michael, who was 10 years younger than me. It's curious that shortly before Elvis' death, just before a major tour, he was bloated almost beyond recognition with the effects of narcotic painkillers, while Michael's most recent appearances showed him looking confident, if frail. So, even though Elvis died at 42 and Jackson at 50, Elvis appears forever older in my mind, while Michael remains eternally young. Coloring these images is the memory of Michael emerging as the leader of the Jackson 5 at age ten; so commanding as a singer and polished as a dancer, and so gifted a musical prodigy, that he made a good singular argument for the existence of God.
I confess to being an unabashed Michael Jackson fan, the only other artist of the age who belongs in the same category with Elvis and the Beatles, since I saw him on the Ed Sullivan Show in December, 1969. When the Beatles appeared on the same program in 1964, it was barely three months since the assassination of JFK, and they brought joy to a grieving nation. The Jackson 5 appeared on our TV screens just eight months after the murders of Dr. King and Robert Kennedy, and gave particular solace to young, black Americans who gained a new source of pride and inspiration. The corporate, white-dominated, music industry sprang into action and offered the Osmond Brothers as a squeaky-clean alternative. The Jackson 5 got a TV variety show; the Osmonds followed on their heels. A Saturday morning cartoon series was created around the Jacksons; the Osmonds had one within weeks. The Jacksons put Michael forward as their child leader; The Osmonds focused on Donny. It was the old practice of mediocre white artists ripping off black performers that dated back to before Pat Boone recorded "Tutti Frutti." But it was never a contest.
Michael's talent drew so much attention at such a young age, you just knew he would be a major adult artist if he could only survive the pitfalls that befell so many other child stars before him. Frankie Lymon, the MJ of the fifties, was devoured and abused by a music industry that drove him to addiction and early death. But Michael's 1979 Off the Wall solo LP, produced by Quincy Jones, was all the evidence anyone needed to know that the cute little boy had grown up. The Jacksons stopped at the Mid-South Coliseum for their Triumph tour in July, 1981, after Off the Wall had been released. Portions of the Memphis show were recorded for the follow-up Jacksons' effort, the double-album, Live, and though the show was critically hailed, it was clear that it was time for Michael to step out on his own.
No one could have predicted the massive response to Thriller, but something happened to Michael afterwards. Both Off the Wall and Thriller were essentially Rhythm & Blues records, but the international hysteria over Michael grew so far and so fast, that it was no longer sufficient to "cross-over" to a pop audience; he needed to dominate the scene, and he did. Jackson brought in Eddie Van Halen to play solos on guitar-based rock songs with a harder edge, and soon became the "King of Pop," but by the time Bad was released, Michael had begun his sad transformation from a vibrant, young, black man, into an old, white woman. I believe it was to make himself more race-neutral to his expanding international fan base, and the stories of him being teased by his father for his classic Negroid features are now legendary. But all his transitory cosmetic surgeries and eccentricities never compared to his lasting creative contributions to music and dance.
It was the personal oddities that fueled the tabloid fodder, and Michael became a target for opportunists. I truly believe that Jackson was an emotional man-child attempting to surround himself with the only group of people he felt he could completely trust; children. Only Michael could have been naive enough to admit in a documentary that he shared his bed with young boys in a non-sexual and innocent manner, like a childhood sleep-over, and expect people to understand him. Even his trust in children was betrayed when the boy he tried to help with medical expenses and emotional support filed criminal molestation charges against him. After the young man and his mother were proven to be grifters and Jackson was acquitted of all charges, Michael was forever burdened with suspicions of pedophilia, and became an object of ridicule. This trying ordeal led the former Jehovah's Witness into the world of prescription meds, painkillers, and "boutique" doctors. All the questions swirling around Jackson's sudden death have yet to be answered, but there is an object lesson in the latest saga of Scottish singer Susan Boyle. The only thing we English speaking followers of pop culture enjoy more than placing a hero on a pedestal to be worshipped, is to rip them apart when we realize they are not gods after all. In the aftermath of this tragedy, songwriter Don McClean's lyrics about Vincent Van Gogh seem most appropriate to Michael Jackson; "This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you."