I’m sure you’ve all been wondering what the hell I think about Michael Jackson and his death. (Really?) At least friends and family last night seemed to be wondering. So, here I go, trying to formulate what feels for me something difficult to talk/write about, not because of any kind of grief, but more for what I don’t feel (and haven’t felt) for the once living-legend of popular music.
In short, for me, Michael Jackson passed a point of usefulness long ago. I say this selfishly. He had not put out music of the kind he did in his golden days for basically over a decade. His public appearances simply grew weirder and weirder, as did his appearance. I’ve always responded negatively to his child-like approach to love, global hand-holding and minor bed-sharing. He had a personality that read both megalomaniacal and cartoonishly coy. He failed, though his life now be cut short, to come clean with the public (even to Oprah, for Christ’s sake) about his heinous plastic surgery history, and, I assume, about the complete nature of his attachment to young boys. He became an artist who was shielded by money and fans (including family and friends), and who failed to transcend the flat-line of substance that befalls many who land in that most chaotic and vertiginous of public spaces: Celebrity.
To be fully transparent, I never really loved Michael Jackson. While I’ve enjoyed certain of his music and his music videos (“Smooth Criminal” has to be my favorite), I have never bought one of his albums, nor downloaded any of his music.
While many around me seem to regret his death as some loss from our childhood, it is a loss I can sense somewhat, but feel no great impulse to allow to subtract anything from what, for me, was already a wild-west of events and understandings that far outweigh any emotion I may have reserved for him or permitted to tether with my experience of youth, save remembering how, in third grade, a girl sitting next to me had Michael Jackson stickers all over one of her notebooks with “I love Michael Jackson” written all over it, and I couldn’t help but wonder why anyone (boy or girl) would have sexual feelings toward him.
There is “Thriller,” I suppose. But largely what I remember about that is its controversy, its dark unfolding into an inescapable community of zombies, and its prefaced disclaimer that reassures audiences that Michael Jackson did not believe in “the occult.” The song still confuses as to what it’s about in the first place.
His death does not resonate for me because, in a very palpable way, he had already died, and had already reached a sort of status of immortality that could not be eclipsed by even a sudden death, as we have now. Whether or not Michael Jackson would have died yesterday or in twenty years, the world would still have remembered him with the same amplitude of awe and sentimentality. This explains why my very first reaction to hearing of his death (via text message, of course, as I was purchasing a ticket to [auspiciously named] Lewis Forever at the New Museum) was, I guess I thought he would never die.
And, just to throw you all a curve, there’s a place of distrust in my regard for Michael Jackson,—wholly laid out by the King of Pop himself—that has created a void into which a sinister thought has slipped: This could all be some immaculate hoax.
His behaviors, his beliefs, his cryogenic chambers, his mask-wearing and veiling of his children, his known curiosity for mischief, his inability (seemingly) to be honest, his desire to remain a child forever in a “neverland” of no consequences and unflagging fandom, compounded the facts that he was virtually broke insolvent (he had lost the ranch and all of its (his Neverland Ranch “narrowly escaped foreclosure”, and some of its contents were nearly auctioned off earlier this year) and his face was literally crumbling to pieces before his (and our) very eyes—how much of a stretch is it to assume that this defeated and haunted star would do anything to escape his life (no longer private, and it utter ruins) even by staging (the grand showman that he was) a sudden and unexpected finale and triumph over his obsession to wage a lifetime campaign between his image and his public and the mechanizations (money & media) that brought them all into a grotesque endgame where everybody involved both loses and wins; i.e. we lose him but gain his legend; he loses his life but wins the game of control.
For the record: I don’t believe this is a hoax. I don’t actually believe that. But the doubt is there, nonetheless.
I won’t—and can’t—take away anything from him as a performer. He moved and sang with an idiosyncratic virtuosity that has been imitated (hi, JT!), but will probably never be replicated.
But, contrary to the verdict already being rendered by television news, he will—sadly—not just be remembered for his music. His life was too damaged and too public to leave any collective memory of him pristine; only selective memory (which posthumous memory can be, more often than not) would imagine Michael Jackson as only an artist with a generosity of heart and talent who inspired millions and whose life was cut all too short. The Michael Jackson circus has been around for a while, and I don’t see any reason why it would stop now. Like Elvis, like Marilyn, he has a bright and glaring future in tabloids and video retrospectives for generations to come. Not exactly the neverland he wanted, but it’s the one he’s going to get.
(Here’s also, my second favorite, with Janet, and cameos by Warhol and Magritte…)