Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Neverland, Nevermore: Michael Jackson and human nature

When TMZ announced the demise of Michael Jackson on June 25, my immediate sense of disbelief and denial felt familiar. The unexpected, premature deaths of River Phoenix, Kurt Cobain and Heath Ledger prompted similar reactions.

But then it became clear what would be different this time: how quickly people would start making light of the tragedy. “He’s with Bubbles now in the great Neverland Ranch in the sky,” a friend commented on Facebook at 2:51 p.m.—less than an hour after Michael was pronounced dead.

Others were already busy playing the ridiculous “celebrities die in threes” game. “First Farrah Fawcett, now MJ, who’s next? Don Rickles?” one person speculated. (For the record: As any astute gossip hound knows, the third celeb in this particular “deathfecta” was Ed McMahon. Duh.)

It’s easy to understand why folks felt comfortable cracking jokes about Michael; after all, he set up so many punch lines with song titles like “Pretty Young Thing,” “Black or White” and “In the Closet.” The oxygen chamber, the pet python, the Elephant Man—they all appeared to be harmless quirks until more disturbing questions began to emerge.

The plastic surgery, the bleached skin, the towhead children—was he ashamed to be black?

The prepubescent voice, the absence of body hair, the asexuality—was he ashamed to be gay? It certainly didn’t help that two of his biggest hits were woman-hating diatribes about an opportunistic babymama (“Billie Jean”) and an opportunistic groupie (“Dirty Diana”).

And then there were the beard brides and the questionable prescriptions. Was it merely a coincidence that two of his best buds—Elizabeth Taylor and Liza Minnelli—are renowned pill-poppers who don’t seem particularly concerned about the sanctity of marriage?

His political views were also a mystery. Michael performed at Bill Clinton’s 1993 inaugural gala, but he also was fond of the Republicans. “He consorts with Ronnie and Nancy, the Reagans, ostensibly to launch a campaign against drunken driving but, by association, giving tacit support to the U.S. president’s re-election campaign,” British journalist Geoff Brown wrote in 1984. “His punishment was to be hounded by White House staff, avid Jackson fans all, until even there he had to seek sanctuary by locking himself in a White House loo. This is, indeed, a superstar who has no escape from his fame.”

Michael eventually found relief from all this adoration when child molestation charges resulted in a rapidly shrinking fanbase. The media frenzy peaked in 1995 with the release of HIStory: Past, Present and Future Book 1, which coincided with an ABC special where Michael was interviewed alongside newlywed wife Lisa Marie Presley. I remember grabbing a copy of the double disc while at Tower Records, where a TV reporter was standing by to ask fans why they remained loyal to Michael despite the controversy. “He’s quite a showman,” I stammered before the camera, “but I don’t pay attention to his personal life.”

This was a total lie; in fact, I still have the Diane Sawyer interview preserved on videotape. But like so many others, I didn’t want to be associated with the freak Michael had become.

What I was unable to see at the time was that Michael was a freak of my creation. And yours. And anyone else who scrutinized his life for the past 40-plus years. We are Frankenstein, and Michael is our monster.

In short, this is what happens when one person is thrust before cameras for 40-plus years. Consider how Princess Diana’s life was destroyed from 15 years in the spotlight. Or how it made Britney Spears go nuts after only 10 years. Or how it ruined Jon and Kate Gosselin’s marriage in only 5 years.

It’s curious when people mock Michael for being eccentric. How could anyone be expected to develop a sense of what’s “normal” after experiencing nothing but abnormal talent, abnormal success and abnormal public curiosity? As the Rev. Al Sharpton told Michael’s children at today’s memorial: “There wasn’t nothing strange about your daddy. It was strange what your daddy had to deal with!”

So it’s all the more impressive that, despite being radically different from the rest of us, Michael always aimed to please the mainstream. (This is a guy who was so concerned about offending anyone, he needlessly placed a disclaimer before the “Thriller” video to clarify that he does not endorse zombies.) And somehow he managed to entertain a cynical world by composing earnest, uplifting songs with universal themes like self-improvement (“Man in the Mirror”) and nonconformity (“Off the Wall”).

My personal favorite is “Can You Feel It,” an overlooked gem by The Jacksons that didn’t even crack the Top 40. The 1980 video features Michael and his brothers superimposed along a skyline, sprinkling fairy dust over a city while singing the praises of racial harmony. It’s the way I want to remember Michael: Before he mangled his face. Before he went from famous to infamous. Before his sound became dated. Before we became jaded.


Jennifer said...

Thank you for writing that, it was the best MJ piece I've read in many years. 'Can You Feel It' is a great song, and I've always loved it.

Dipstick said...

Well said Jim. But I have to disagree on one point. He was weird. But being weird isn't always a bad thing.

Buena Onda said...

I like your article, Jim, and thaks for the reference to the beautiful video. That's a fitting way to remember Michael's aspirations.