Spangled Socks at Half Mast
So, interesting day yesterday.
I think I’ve said before that I don’t really get death. I’ve lost loved ones and family members and it’s been sad and strange and all of that. But there are also people in my life who I was friendly with at one time but, because of circumstance, I will probably never see again (Facebook mitigates this a little). From a logical perspective, aren’t those people as good as dead, as far as I’m concerned?
I’m well aware this seems cold and callous. I don’t want to be. I imagine this will change if and when I have children myself. But I’m just trying to put things in context of how I approached yesterday’s news about Michael Jackson’s death.
For that odd period when half the news sources were saying he was dead and half had him in a coma or in surgery, I was rooting for him to make it. This is was partly because I never actually root for someone to die, but in particular I wanted TMZ to be wrong, lose credibility and get a much deserved smackdown.
Then, once it was clear that this was no rumor and he was gone, came the flood. I check Twitter and Facebook far more often than a person should and EVERY post was about Jackson. There were a few jokes, but mostly it was heartfelt memories of a lost artist.
But here’s where my callous logical side kicked in. For one, the man was probably a child molestor. I am a believer in “innocent until proven guilty” and he was never proven guilty. But, well, Peter Sagal (from NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me”) put it very well on his blog:
“I do believe he was a pedophile and a child molester, because people who are
innocent of child molestation do
not pay 20 million dollars to people who accuse them of molesting their
child (nor should people demand such a payment in return for such a crime, but
that’s another issue)” – Peter Sagal
That said, I am a firm believer in loving the art and hating the artist. I can enjoy Wagner without agreeing with his anti-Semitism. But, logically again, Michael Jackson had not recorded a memorable song in more than 15 years, nothing truly good in more than 20 years, and nothing genuinely brilliant and classic in over 25 years. If we are addressing him purely as an artist, and not as the man unworthy of our respect, what is the difference between him dying now and if he had died in 1992? So I was a little offended when I heard him compared to Joplin, Hendrix, Buddy Holly or any other great young artist who died while at the peak of their creativity. Jackson was decidedly in 1970s Elvis territory and had been there for some time.
I didn’t say anything myself. Clearly many people were going through grief and I had no desire to mock them. I even deleted a tweet I wrote when I thought this was just a minor heart attack. Highlight to read it: #tackymichaeljacksonheartattackjoke Q: What did Michael Jackson's cardiologist say to his heart? A: Beat it!
Then I got into the car to drive home and, of course, every station was playing his music. At one point one station finished “Thriller” and I pressed my next preset just in time to catch the beginning of “Thriller” once again. And, y’know what … those were damn good songs. Michael Jackson was truly a great artist for the first thirty years of his life and that is always worth remembering.
After all, when Jimmy Stewart, probably my favorite movie star, died, I certainly didn’t complain that he hadn’t made a classic movie in thirty years or more. But, on the other hand, Jimmy Stewart hadn’t died at fifty and spent the second half of his life desperately trying to reclaim the glory of his youth.
I do still think that, amidst our fond memories of The Jackson Five and his first two solo albums, we can’t forget the way it all ended. Jackson serves as a cautionary tale of an abused child who went on to abuse others, of a man deprived of a childhood who went to absurd extremes to give himself one in adulthood. And, yes, of talent hurt by fame and personal failings. I know we should not speak ill of the dead, but we also should not ignore reality. Love his music, sure, but don’t let that cloud your good judgement.
For someone my age, Michael Jackson was possibly the first celebrity we were aware off. We knew Big Bird, E.T., and Superman, and we were somewhat aware that the same actor played Han Solo and Indiana Jones. We knew Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan were important people and we knew who Charles and Diana were. And I, myself, was aware of the music my parents liked, so I had some understanding of who the Beatles and the Stones were. But if you were five or six when Thriller came out, as I was, Michael Jackson was the first celebrity who entered our lives in the way celebrities do, as artists, as phenomena, as people real and unreal at the same time. Thriller was the first album I ever owned. “Weird Al”’s “Eat It” was perhaps my first introduction to the idea of parody, as light and non-critical a parody as it is.
And watching Jackson turn from genius to has been to freakshow and now to memory has been a key pop-culture ride for us. We weren’t really there from the beginning, but we saw it through to the end.
So, if you’re sensing some conflictedness in how I’m responding to all this, you’re right. As a pop-culture person, I’ve just lost perhaps the most prominent pop-culture touchstone, for good and bad, of my lifetime.
And I must admit that I owe something to the man. That first attempt I made at writing jokes featured a big batch of Jackson jokes. I look back at those now and they seem amateurish and unfunny, but they helped get me the SNL gig and that helped in other ways. So, yes, I personally benefitted much more from Jackson the freak than from Jackson the genius.
The good news – I can buy Thriller on iTunes and feel good that the money will go to his deeply in-debt estate and not to the man himself.
Rest in peace, Michael Jackson. For good or bad, you were always THERE and the world will be a markedly different place without you.