Comparisons come almost too easily. One can rank the hype and pure star
power of Michael Jackson up there with the most famous people who have ever
lived. His reach was planetary in scale. His loss delivers the shock and
tragic complexity of the death of Elvis Presley, John Lennon or Marilyn
Monroe. But focus on Michael himself and the comparisons evaporate. This is
an irreplaceable talent that sadly the world lost some time ago. By the time
of his death at age 50 this week, Jackson had receded from a world that could
only witness him in bizarre glimpses. Those glimpses continued all evening on
television news reports showing blurry crowds and telephoto shots of
ambulances. As in life, in death the best mere humans can do is get a ticket
for the global stadium event.
Michael was outsized from the moment he took the stage as part of his
family's irresistibly appealing Motown act. But he immediately outgrew his
family; over time he became, as the King of Pop, bigger than his genre. Then, at
the top of his game, he exceeded the scale of celebrity itself. In the late
80s and 90s Michael hung out with actress Elizabeth Taylor because almost no
one could match his towering profile of talent and weirdness. ... Continue reading
There is no way to overstate the impact of Jacko on pop culture. Michael:
the voice, the feet, the songs, the hats, the gloves, the self-mutilation,
the pure genius are all instantly recognizable signatures. He created the
music video industry and it barely survives him. "We are the World," the song
he wrote for starving Africans in 1985, was instantly iconic both as a cry for
world peace and as a braying mantra of empty celebrities trying to save the
world in their spare time. Both issues emerged in the 80's with Michael
Jackson defining the style and literally writing the lyrics of those
messages. In the world of music alone he went from pop prodigy to songwriting
voice of an era to an entertainment behemoth who bested the Beatles and Elvis
and became the prototype for Madonna, Elton John, Prince and the dazzling mix
of musicianship and excess that is hip hop.
In the end, Jackson defined celebrity itself and embodied the most rococo
versions of the celebrity narratives of dissipation, psychological scars,
bizarre sexual proclivities, and a studied frailty that seemed to trap
Michael in a permanent childhood. By the time of his death he seemed to shed
any category that might box him in. Michael Jackson was defined by no
relationship. By the time of his greatest success he had shed his hometown of
Gary, Indiana (hardly a surprise), but he also shed his family ties and his
early days raised as a Jehovah's Witness. His marriage to Lisa Marie Presley
was a side-show at best. Even his racial identity faded — he eventually seemed to
erase his skin color altogether as the result of mysterious treatments for
even more mysterious diseases — in the end, achieving a kind of universal
Michael-ness. In his last years he seemed even immune from bankruptcy, in
motorcades and chartered jets despite any hint of collapsing fortunes. His
wispy strangeness became as iconic as any of his early gestures. The hair,
the glasses, the sun umbrellas, the breathy voice were as recognizable as
anything he ever did.
Listening to the coverage tonight, even the people who claimed to know him
sound like they are comparing notes about an event they sat in the bleachers
to observe. He was "strange," "great," "extraordinary." Words fall short.
Michael himself did not encourage people to understand who he really was.
Aside from suggestions that his abuse as a child explained him or that having had
no childhood explained his behavior, there is very little to go on.
My favorite Michael Jackson quote is also one of the simplest. As a little
boy he was asked what he thought about when he was singing and he answered
after a breathy pause, "I mean it when I sing. I don't sing it if I don't
mean it." It must be there in the lyrics. Billie Jean, Human Nature, Thriller,
Oh Baby, give me one more chance?