And suddenly, there appeared a brilliant streak of white light as the meteor left the atmosphere, trailing behind a single glove, redolant with stars sparkling like ever so many diamonds ….
Or so it would seem from the headlines, as we find ourselves awash in the mournful public outcry of unadulterated adoration that followed Michael Jackson’s death: something I found… surprising, under the circumstances.
Don’t take this the wrong way. I wasn’t surprised because I think ill of the Pop Star, but rather because I believe to whitewash his story after his passing is not a tribute at all, but in fact is doing something quite different: firmly fixing an Icon in our collective memory. In writing this I hope to not only offer but consider as a rule the way in which we memorialize our “stars” in the press. Even as I write this, I must recall that Jackson was only one of several Icons to die of late, and that his death should be taken in perspective to the men, women, and children dying every day – remembering to value each equally.
But nonetheless here we are – because it is appropriate and right to consider the ways in which we frame our stars, our idols, those we prop up and scorn in turn. Because they live their lives in the public eye, so too our their deaths made public. And so we find ourselves facing the idea of a just and proper memorial. Here my intention is to say clearly and firmly that for public figures as for our loved ones, a true tribute is not one in which we only praise the deceased, (which is right and good) but also one in which we consider the context within which the death took place – taking the person’s challenges and struggles to heart as much as their successes. For this values the whole person, the whole life – and in a public life seeks that their story may not be in vain. In each passing, with each life we have an opportunity to look not only at the deceased but at how and why we assign “value” to people, in their lives or in their deaths, hopefully teaching us all to live with greater compassion towards others, especially those we may not understand.
What part of this is the tragedy? Perhaps the sadness that is accompanying this or other untimely deaths is creating a transference, hoping to suggest or leave us with the thought that the death is the tragic, sad event that we should mourn – when in fact this soul’s demise happened long, long before.
So yes: I admit surprise at the outpouring of unfettered positivity regarding Michael’s death – So sad! So sad! A life cut shorter than most, yes. But in the wake of the mixed and often strongly negative press and public opinion that was never far from him in these past decades, it seemed somehow not appropriate, or at the least detached, from this man’s reality, to treat his leaving it as simply “sad”. For frankly, I don’t remember an outpouring of love or defense of Michael in his difficult times. Many of the voices now joined in celebrating and mourning this “tragic death” were implicated in bringing this man, this person, to the clearly tortured state in which we have become familiar seeing him.
As I found myself reading countless Facebook posts about how alternately “sad” and “unbelievable” this event is, I stumbled on the heart of the matter: a smattering of friends’ and acquaintances memories, all long past. Somehow, this fifty year old, little-understood person’s death represents for many something quite different entirely: the end of an era, the end of a part of their past, a sure statement that childhood/their teenage years/their youth is in fact not only over, but gone. The sadness was personal – not necessarily a suggestion it was in fact sad for Michael.
But looking closer – it is not the death of Michael Jackson, the complicated man and often ridiculed caricature that he has become, but the death of a time period, an idea, an icon that is being mourned…. In the end taking attention farther and farther away from the true tragedy, of what his death shows us about ourselves, our culture.
It took me a while to formulate my own response, and gauge whether I’d be seen as a killjoy, given that my first inkling was: “oh, what a blessing for Michael.” Frankly, I didn’t once feel saddened by the event of the death itself – as he was so obviously in great pain and I imagine that this was in many ways a relief from the confusion of this time and place. Not having necessarily a view of death that presumes this as “an end,” per se, I am happy to know he’s moved on, gets to do something new.
However the death is representative of an endemic public tragedy, which I find deeply sad, and frustrating to no end: we should and must face that the same system that creates these icons also destroys them emotionally, mentally, and often physically.
It shouldn’t be surprising that the media is taking this opportunity to lionize Michael for his achievements, and I do not think for a minute that the lack of attention to his troubling times is the result of a sudden case of conscience, in which these viper-tongued minions of spin have taken unkindly to speaking ill of the dead. Absolutely not.
Rather, I think that for the press – really, for everyone involved in the making and breaking of public figures – that it isn’t a leap to recognize how much easier it is to narrate the story of a complicated star when they’re no longer living. It’s a godsend to those who want to tell the Michael story and have it mean a certain thing that this figure can no longer appear doing hard to understand, challenging things – both personally and professionally.
And so the figure becomes an icon, a martyr even, their star shining brighter because of the attention on their untimely death. I cannot help remembering a story I wrote last January after the passing of Heath Ledger, in which my emotions following that tragedy were much the same: that in large part the tragedy that needs to be addressed is the subjugation of our public figures to fickle adoration and vile criticism. The public who adores in turn abhors and forgets, turning on a whim. In the face of little loyalty, and deep alienation and desperation in those in the spotlight – in particular, those for who it may be fading away. A human being who loves, who means well, who wishes to act morally and ethically, choosing compassion for both colleague and public – but who may not be as political, savvy, or strong as those we might point to (Sarandon and Robbins, perhaps?) – can often be left blindsided, confused, and alone.
I anticipate some criticism, and also some unwanted praise, and I want to put rejoinders out there before there is any confusion:
1) Yes, tribute must and should be paid. Some of you will say I am not being kind to his memory. I hope you re-read and understand just how kind I mean to be – compassionate to all the parts of this man, not just those we remember fondly. More direct praise comes towards the end of the article… but so too can it be found everywhere. I seek to buck that tide.
2) I am not doing this to criticize Michael. I don’t know him nor can I know him. I only seek a balanced story, one which engages the circumstances of his life and early death, hoping that by considering the system in which he found himself (it would seem) isolated, scared, and alone amongst fans, friends, and colleagues, frightened and warned against trusting his fellow man. If you are reading this saying, “at least someone with sense,” because you feel anger or disappointment, or dislike for Michael based on previous public sentiment, you will have to look elsewhere for solace.
3) There are also those who will say that I am falling into a trap of “poor little rich kid” syndrome, and that there is nothing to feel sorry for, and this must be addressed. In these situations, I try to say to myself and others, “There but for the grace go I.” It is not only trite but tried, and true, that you should not judge another man till you have walked a mile in his shoes. The simple trust and love that we, out of the public eye, feel and have amongst our friends and family may be the farthest thing from a celebrity’s reality, when in the hullabaloo even those closest to us might become jealous, greedy, suspicious, or so forth. We’ve heard the stories many many times – we cannot imagine how it must feel. From personal observation and interaction I can tell you that some of the wealthiest people I know have often been some of the unhappiest. For a longer, in depth discussion about this epidemic of deep dissatisfaction, I would send you to the Dalai Lama’s book, “Ethics for the New Millenium.” (A discussion for a later date).
But I digress.
The fact is, I think we have a lot to learn from not only the parts of Michael that are easy to love and remember unblemished, but also from the years and actions being swept under the rug. Fitting tribute to this man is acknowledgement of all that he is and was – not only those parts that make sense to us.
How did you feel about Michael in these past years? Were you listening to his music? Which parts of it? When you heard it, did you connect it to the person? Or to a memory of yourself, of a time, of a place? Were you in support of him, did you try to understand him and speak kindly of him amidst the swirling accusations and criticism, amongst claims of possible abuse? Likely not… who did? But of course you love him now.
Don’t get your panties in a snit. I’m not trying to condemn the reader for being led (baaa, baa) like one of so many sheep through the public opinion hills and valleys that have been, in fact HIStory – just to draw attention to the elephant in the room. Hey, Jumbo.
I’ll speak for myself: the last time I really remember being a Michael Jackson “fan” is probably when I proudly saved my allowance to buy “BAD” on vinyl when it came out, in 1989. I was ten, and immensely excited. Like many of my generation, we cannot imagine our childhoods without Off the Wall, Thriller, or BAD, and perhaps we even saw The Wiz. Many of our parents had the Jackson Five, too. Michael was ubiquitous: part of media, public image (literally) on fire… part of life. And many of these songs have made a comeback in our retro-active memories and festive occasions, playing a part again in celebrations that glorify the past with all the rosy attributes of hindsight.
But somewhere between then and now, twenty years passed. Sure, I remember “Man in the Mirror,” “Black and White,” and “Remember the Time,” but they already seemed like pop creations from someone whose time had past, whose star had faded. I don’t know which of you can or would call yourselves die hard Michael fans, but I had little to no knowledge (or interest really) in the multiple albums that followed.
But it seemed right, today, that not only should I rely on my memories if adequate tribute was to be paid, but to look deeper into the extensive (and continuous) outpouring of material that characterized this artist. For after all, like the writer, the lyricist and music man could be said to be most himself not in his life, but in his work.
So I went and sought out lyrics, poring over both songs I knew and ones I never did, where both sadness and frustration showed again and again. Despite its absurdity to some extent, even a song like, “Why you wanna trip?” is an incredulous plea for a public that seems bent on examining his life, dissecting his mistakes while world hunger and homelessness are rampant.
In fact, even a quick perusal of this lyrical history displays an incredible consistency of attention: a two-lens approach. First, Michael throughout turns the lens on himself, inquiring and demanding of himself honesty, better choices, humility, and change; then, the lens is turned outward on a society which has proved itself fickle not only in its love for him, but greater humanity and eachother. There is a deep sadness, a confusion, songs upon songs that collectively cry out, “why?”
In the past, as I watched and tried to understand the choices Michael Jackson was making during all these scandals -- what could possibly be happening inside his world – I often found myself emotionally regarding him as though he were a child. His expression alone gave one the feeling that one gets from a kid who is hurt and sad, who has been told they have done something wrong and knows only the anger of their parent or caretaker, but not the source, and not the wrong. He seemed like a scared, lost little boy, whose confidences had been broken, not understanding what was going on… and my heart went out to him.
When I found the song “The Lost Children,” and imagined
Michael wondering how others can “sit there addressing, counting
your blessings/biding [their] time” while
he lay “sleeping and [his] heart is weeping/ because he’s keeping a place/ for all the lost children” it was clear that even if not written into the song, he too sought that home. That in fact, he was one of these children. There was nothing contrived or inappropriate about it – just the genuine voice we trust and admire of our young people, that gets perceived differently in the adult world. I’m not sure Michael ever made that transition.
Perhaps amongst all the mixed messages, the words of others and the stories we may never hear the “truth” of, if we wish to remember and honor this man, with all his faults, we should look to his own words for translation. It seems to me that we find there the words of a grown child’s soul -- with all of that child's wide-eyed compassion for the world and its creatures -- to guide us.
From Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’
Lift Your Head Up High
And Scream Out To The World
I Know I Am Someone
And Let The Truth Unfurl
No One Can Hurt You Now
Because You Know What's True
Yes, I Believe In Me
So You Believe In You