Saturday, January 19, 2019

Reframing The Man In The Mirror, Reflecting Ourselves

by L DeSilva-Johnson (writer), Brooklyn, NY, June 27, 2009


As a media storm begins, mourning the death of The King of Pop, what is the proper memorial for this amazing but also troubled and complex figure? Our kindest tribute must include more than praise.

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

About the Writer

L DeSilva-Johnson is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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19 comments on Reframing The Man In The Mirror, Reflecting Ourselves

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By L DeSilva-Johnson on June 27, 2009 at 08:33 am

Thanks, Julian, truly appreciated.

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By L DeSilva-Johnson on June 27, 2009 at 10:57 am

Thankfully, I don't believe in "bad luck"...only the balanced, mysterious workings of things wearing wolves' clothing...

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By cristogianni on June 27, 2009 at 12:19 pm

Very good article, Lynne! You verbalized a great many emotions that I also have felt in the wake of this pop icon's death. It's true, the media seems to play a truly Orwellian role in "building up" and then "tearing down" these entertainers and other public figures. But one also must remember that Michael, himself, fed many lies and rumors to the press (as far back as the 1980s) for the sake of publicity. So, at least in some ways, he brought his problems upon himself.

Personally, I remember thinking as far back as junior high school (in the early 1990s) that Michael would not be living among us that much longer. His appearance, his physical metamorphosis, became too bizarre for me to conceive the notion that this man would make it to a ripe old age--it wasn't the change in pigmentation, it was the transition from what looked like real skin to plastic, from an actual human being to an upright, walking version of the "thing" that's lying in Lenin's tomb. I couldn't possibly believe that Michael would make it, with a seemingless "pore-less" exterior like that, to the age of 60 or 70, or even 50. So, for me, the shock is not there at all--and neither can I believe it's there for many other people. For me, Michael Jackson died years ago, just like this man's tortured career. As you rightly pointed out:

this soul’s demise happened long, long before.

Great piece, Lynne. The best I've read on Jackson's post mortem.


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By L DeSilva-Johnson on June 28, 2009 at 10:14 am

Is "analisation" a word? are you searching for the word "analysis" perhaps? More importantly, are you the writer of the scathing, anonymous review? Let me copy and paste it here for all to see, even if it's not yours.

"Well at least YOU found a subject to write about. Bullet points and all. What kind of person are you? How do you sleep? This is not a piece about MJ, but a piece on the lady with the double barrelled name who thinks of nothing but herself." 4 stars, interest, 2 stars, writing, 1 star fairness, 1 star analysis

To write an anonymous *positive* comment is to, as in the old Hebrew custom of the anonymous gift, allow for something to be received without needing affirmation of your good dead. To write an anonymous *negative* comment, especially an unfounded one, is simply nasty, in bad taste, and spineless.

This article isn't meant to be about me, but about how we as a society treat our dead -- though yes, because I am seeking to be truly honest, I explore this issue through my own perceptions, the only source of truth one has as a writer. Would you suggest that I do otherwise? how exactly would we benefit from that?

so, @corisong: Did you get all the way through? Did you understand that the intention of the article is to suggest that Michael was a wonderful, if childlike, soul, that was destroyed by the society that held him up, and that by looking at how horribly we treat these people, we can avoid destroying others in future?

And why exactly are you "heartbroken"? if its because the article made you realise that that's how we treat someone like Michael, and that for many, suicide often can and does feel like the only way out, then I daresay you DID get my point. If you don't like it, that doesn't mean you should criticise my writing or my article. That is an abuse of the democratic system here.

As for "Do you only write about dead people," I have sixteen articles on here, and other writing all over the web. Your question is insulting, guileless, and shows only a clear ignorance of my work -- as does the comment above.  It would serve you and the Broo community if you'd show greater grace in the future. 

As for a comment on the "double-barelled" name, if this is an attempt to get me for pretension you can be assured my parents were simply indecisive, leaving me with a hyphenated name that often doesn't fit in forms and gave me quite a bit of stress as a child. Thanks for insulting it! Classy.

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By cristogianni on June 28, 2009 at 01:10 pm

"Well at least YOU found a subject to write about. Bullet points and all. What kind of person are you? How do you sleep? This is not a piece about MJ, but a piece on the lady with the double barrelled name who thinks of nothing but herself."

This is a despicable, un-funny, unprovoked ad hominem which has no place in this otherwise civil and meaningful community of writers. Obviously someone's misplaced emotions have gotten the better of them.

Keep on writing, Lynne! The rest of us are behind you.

Your friend,


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By L DeSilva-Johnson on June 28, 2009 at 01:58 pm

Thank you, Garry and Gianni. 

@garry, true dat about Hunter S Thompson, (and his ilk) too. There's a lot of people who deserve far more public memorialising, but of course its no surprise that those that do not toe any line and [who can] be relied on to tell it like it is are not always those the media choose to engage in prolongued, epic mourning over. Some of the most amazing poets and less known but equally radical people I've ever heard of have died in the past few years -- their deaths and their lives deserving at least as long and as hard a look.

As for cyberbullying, boo. Let's all do what we can to keep the Broo civil, balanced, and above board in articles, comments, and reviews. Even if we dont agree with eachother, we need to maintain a modicum of professionalism. 

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By cristogianni on June 29, 2009 at 12:25 am

Cori, are you for real? Or are you wanting some publicity for all the articles you have published in the "real" world? Chances are, these "virtual" articles are getting more attention anyway. So come on, let's keep it dignified and clean.


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By cristogianni on June 29, 2009 at 12:26 am

Btw, Michael would agree with me. Cheers!

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By cristogianni on June 29, 2009 at 12:29 am

Ok, this is weird: I just posted these two comments back to back and it's 12:28am right now. But my posts say 12:44 and 12:56 respectively.....Was I just involved in some kind of time warp or something? This Broo thing is getting weird.

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By L DeSilva-Johnson on June 29, 2009 at 08:14 am

Thanks everyone for your support. It's unfortunate, because my first responses to Cori took her seriously -- I only mentioned that I had multiple other articles to read on the internet because she asked if I "only wrote about dead people" it wasn't remotely a claim to legitimacy. Yes, Virginia, there is both a Santa Claus, and a career, of mine, offline. I wasn't and aren't interested in a spitting contest.

I did go read some of her articles after receiving the original comment, too -- again with no intentions of being personally vindictive, but wondering if, in fact, this person was submitting deep, in depth, and non-personal stories on here, and had any basis for the attacks on mine. What I found was appalling, and deeply insulting, again: a few lines in all caps, no analysis, barely a blog entry. I wish I'd just ignored it from the start but I'm not quick to give up on people, or to let things roll off my back. 

Thankfully you guys were there in my corner. Go Broo writers! way to show your community spirit. 

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By Kim on June 29, 2009 at 11:04 am

Keep writing Lynne.  This is a very insightful article. It is true many times those that are ridiculed the most death are suddenly worshipped. It is distrubing that people are treated in such a fashion as Michael Jackson was...and many others during a life time...exploited, misunderstood, lied upon, and more.  It is very troubling the way we as a society treat others.

Your article shared many truths that many find impossible to face.

I have often thought of the hell that Michael had to go through from having his childhood ripped from him at an early age to the accusations of all sorts...

Thank you Lynne for sharing your article!

Sorry If I made any typos and/or grammatical errors here...I haven't had coffee yet...:)


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By L DeSilva-Johnson on June 29, 2009 at 01:57 pm

I absolutely will not tolerate the continued defamation of character. If @cori or anyone else have real criticism, I am happy and schooled in such dialogue, but baseless character attacks are both cruel and uncalled for. Like any writer worth their salt, frankly I don't care if people "like" my work, but I expect a caliber of criticism that engages in conscious, specific critique of content, style, or so forth... standard issue in any professional writing environment.

As for writing in "the real world" many of us are online not because we are not successful in the "real world" but despite the fact that we are... but in addition we seek access to the significant, different culture that exists only in cyberspace, a broad populist counter-geographical public that at its best supercedes boundaries of not only topographical elements but also social and cultural difference, age, and so forth. 

The funny thing is that in all my comments, @cori, I continue to show you respect. I am a hard working person, a conscientious and well-informed writer and researcher, a teacher, a healer, and someone committed to community service both here and in my offline-world... and yet it hits home when someone who doesn't know me chooses to call me names and slander my careful work done with much love and compassion for my subjects. I think an apology is more than warranted, but if that is not where you're at I don't judge. Please just cease the attacks. It's enough, now... you've more than made your point.

And as a fellow writer I'd say to anyone: it's easy to be a critic. The best way to make a point if you want validity behind it is to do a better job yourself. I'm waiting with baited breath.

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By Digidave on June 29, 2009 at 02:21 pm

To Lynn and Cori

This is David: I'm the online editor here at Bro0 as many of you know. I'm going to ask that this thread back and forth between you stop. The only exception would be an apology. The comment above from Lynn I think was a good start towards that end.

This is a respectful community and we do not tolerate personal attacks, name calling, etc. Criticism is fine - but it must be constructive. You can disagree - I can't force anyone to agree to anything. But what is not negotiable is respecting other community members and their point of view.

This is a warning and it will not be repeated. If it continues: We have banned members in the past who refuse to accept these terms of service and we will do it again. No personal attacks. End of story.

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By L DeSilva-Johnson on June 30, 2009 at 08:02 am

Thank you, David.

And back to our regularly scheduled program, I was just alerted to this terrific interview with Michael "Smiley" Jackson, from JET magazine circa 1979. Amazing to read now.

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By L DeSilva-Johnson on June 30, 2009 at 06:32 pm

I didn't see that comment on Dave's post. Also, it's not appropriate to attach this to my article! Don't take this the wrong way, @craig, as I'm not involved, but I'm hiding it because I think the exchange is both private and in poor taste. If a forum (not attached to article comments) should be opened on the site we should all discuss how and where, but I don't want to be associated with this particular battle. 

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By Carol Young on July 01, 2009 at 05:04 pm

I saw that comment on Dave's post when I followed Craig's link.

Regarding Michael Jackson, all that immense talent didn't help him a bit when he reached the top where the air is just too thin for survival.

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By Lucy Ong on July 09, 2009 at 06:03 pm

Michael Jackson was another generation's Judy Garland.

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By Lady D on July 13, 2009 at 09:30 am

This is an excellent article. We always seem to remember the fame of those  "Stars" who die, but we forget thier humanity. So this gives a look at and way to see how fame can tear up a gentle soul.

Micheal would be happy that someone saw Him, not just as a Star, but as a person who really did try to make a difference.

I see nothing to criticise.

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By EllisDiamond on August 06, 2009 at 09:28 pm

Very interesting article.

Michael Jackson was a Peter Pan, he was a child at heart, and he wanted to stay young forever. An image that he would have struggled to maintain as he got older. And yes we should remember him not only as a musician, and an artist but also as a humanitarian. He did allot of good. I read through his history recently, and was stunned by how much work he has done for charity, and for others. RIP Michael Jackson. 

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