Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson is dead - but who really cares?

We loved him, we maligned him, now - will we miss him?

I think in Michael Jackson we have a wonderful and horrible symbol of our era. He is Generation X's Elvis. An excellent artist, a dancer par excelance, someone who truly understood music expression, but he became troubled by intense media focus, adulation, and having to manage the schizophrenic existence that is living and performing.

Did we mock Michael Jackson? All of us did at some point, and perhaps it was justified. The surgeries, the allegations. Michael's incredible fame contorted the soul and appearance of a man, and we saw Michael soften and deteriorate like a wax model on fire. Did we care about the person? Was Jackson still a frightened child behind the plastic star on the Christmas tree. I think so.

We ought to remember and celebrate the good [SLIDESHOW], yes, but also try to understand why Jackson's star fell from its zenith. It wasn't just Michael - it was also our greedy hysteria that turned him into an idol. We demanded he perform, and he did. But he was also a person who was desperately trying to conform to some amorphous image...

As years went by, Jackson became an increasingly freakish figure — a middle-aged man-child weirdly out of touch with grown-up life. His skin became lighter, his nose narrower, and he spoke in a breathy, girlish voice. He often wore a germ mask while traveling, kept a pet chimpanzee named Bubbles as one of his closest companions, and surrounded himself with children at his Neverland ranch, a storybook playland filled with toys, rides and animals. The tabloids dubbed him "Wacko Jacko."

"It seemed to me that his internal essence was at war with the norms of the world. It's as if he was trying to defy gravity," said Michael Levine, a Hollywood publicist who represented Jackson in the early 1990s. He called Jackson a "disciple of P.T. Barnum" and said the star appeared fragile at the time but was "much more cunning and shrewd about the industry than anyone knew."

Michael failed to accept himself, and this rubbed off on fans. But who can stand up and say, who we are, as society, and consumers, we aren't headed towards a similar fate? Destruction.

Like Elvis, Jackson was once beautiful, outrageous, a revolutionary without politics who shook down the walls between black and white. He had the hits, the style, the ego, the talent. He was the King of Pop and he needed only to fill in the life: He married Elvis' daughter. He bought the rights to some of Elvis' songs. Elvis owned Graceland, its name a symbol for a deliverance the singer prayed for until the end of his life. Jackson had Neverland, a fantasy for a child-man for whom money meant the chance to live in a world of his own.

He did, and did not, want to be like Elvis.

The lesson though, is this: Do we celebrate and idolise someone just so long as they entertain us, just so long as they are in some way attractive (even if only on the surface). If that is true for you, a similar sorry fate awaits you at some point. We ought to cultivate a greater appreciation for subtlety, that people and things and nature has value not necessarily for what it gives us, or even what it can give, or what it has given, but merely for being what it is. Can you do that? Can I?

More: Michael Jackson died too soon. RIP Michael.
Michael Jackson Tribute slideshow.

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