Essay: The Death of Michael, Plus Three

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Michael Jackson

Monday marks three years since Michael Jackson died at the age of 50. I mark this occasion not only because the commemoration is currently trending on Twitter, but because I found the the reaction to his death one of the more compelling that I can remember.

Jackson’s death, which came as he was preparing for a series of comeback concerts, was announced at around 6 p.m. on the East Coast on June 25, 2009. Almost immediately, in most major U.S. cities, just about every radio station dropped their planned playlists and instead played days of wall-to-hit Michael.

The death of the King of Pop immediately knocked Iran’s then-thriving Green Revolution off the front pages and TV, and in the following weeks, news media largely painted a nostalgic, wistful picture of Michael, a man who the same outlets had been depicting, since the early ’90s, as at best a punchline and at worst a dangerous sex offender.

Sure, the molestation charges, grotesque plastic surgeries and baby-dangling were mentioned occasionally, but overall, the mourning of Michael Jackson in 2009 essentially pretended that the last 15 years of his life never happened.

That’s something Americans often do with the dead, turning flawed people into larger-than-life martyrs. It’s something that was brilliantly satirized just weeks after Jackson’s death by the amazingly audacious Bobcat Goldthwait comedy “World’s Greatest Dad.” 

It happens in sports, too- when longtime Raiders owner Al Davis died last year, the obits treated Davis as a visionary and pioneer of the game who built the Raiders franchise from nothing and won them championships in the ’70s- not as the creepy, bumbling, greedy laughingstock that he’d been almost universally portrayed as for the previous two decades.

And then, as soon as we were done valorizing Jackson, it was time to cash in. That’s where we got “Michael Jackson: This Is It,” a concert film released as a blatant cash grab just a few months after the singer’s death.

Consisting of expensive special-effects footage meant for the London stage show that never happened, as well as shoddy behind-the-scenes footage of a mumbling, more-grotesque-looking-than-ever MJ rehearsing, the movie got inexplicably positive reviews from critics undisturbed by the open, crass exploitation of a man who was literally days away from death.

Not only did Jackson look like hell- my friend Sean Burns described him as “spindly and emaciated with distractingly gigantic hands and feet, peering out from behind his omni-present sunglasses with that creepily immobile, nose-less death-mask face”- and but he sounded pretty awful too, and looked downright small in front of the ridiculously over-the-top special effects (why a 3D, super-CGI’d remake of the “Thriller” video? What was wrong with the old one?)

The woman sitting next to me at the screening clearly didn’t agree; she blurted out “I love you, Michael!” the moment the credits rolled.

The exploitation has continued in the ensuing years. The trial of Jackson’s doctor, Conrad Murray, for prescribing the drugs that killed the singer was given nearly gavel-to-gavel news coverage, seemingly because the Nancy Graces of the world decided they needed to milk one more trial out of the Jackson saga.

I also see this summer that “The Jacksons” are on a tour of C-list casinos, which raises all sorts of questions, starting with, “Who wants to see a Michael-less Jackson ensemble?” and “Who among this group of men in their 50s and 60s will sing the little-boy falsetto parts?”

I’ve always loved Jackson’s music, both with the Jackson 5 and the “Off the Wall”/”Thriller”/”Bad” run of solo albums, and it was some of the formative music of my youth. And I’m glad that the singer’s death probably led many younger people to discover his music for the first time.

I think we should look back on Jackson and take the whole thing in- the amazing body of music, the complex and strange life story, the eccentricities, the skin changes, the molestation allegations, and his death- and think of it as a fascinating, one of a kind, and very tragic American story. What’s not right is to pretend Jackson was something he wasn’t, or to try to make an undeserved buck off his life and death.

I close with the words of Andrew Sullivan, who had the best take of anyone at the time of Jackson’s death:

 There are two things to say about him. He was a musical genius; and he was an abused child. By abuse, I do not mean sexual abuse; I mean he was used brutally and callously for money, and clearly imprisoned by a tyrannical father. He had no real childhood and spent much of his later life struggling to get one. He was spiritually and psychologically raped at a very early age – and never recovered. Watching him change his race, his age, and almost his gender, you saw a tortured soul seeking what the rest of us take for granted: a normal life.

But he had no compass to find one; no real friends to support and advise him; and money and fame imprisoned him in the delusions of narcissism and self-indulgence. Of course, he bears responsibility for his bizarre life. But the damage done to him by his own family and then by all those motivated more by money and power than by faith and love was irreparable in the end. He died a while ago. He remained for so long a walking human shell… hope he has the peace now he never had in his life. And I pray that such genius will not be so abused again.

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