Editor’s Note: I’ve always thought that many people in the creative fields — Picasso, Elvis, Spike Lee, Jim Morrison, the list goes on and on — would be better off remembered for whatever they left behind (songs, paintings, movies, etc.), rather than what they were as people. Michael Jackson, who died on June 25, 2009, is a prime example.
The Man in the Mirror
place could be much brighter than tomorrow,
— Heal the World
There’s something odd about mourning the death of someone you’ve never met and really don’t know. Yet, when it’s a major celebrity, from John Lennon to Princess Di, we Americans regularly do just that.
Maybe it’s because, when people are in the public eye long enough, we feel we know them a little, or at least we feel we know a little something about them. So it is with Michael Jackson, one of the most famous — and surely one of the most bizarre — celebrities of the past 40 years.
Underneath a hairdo that often looked like it belonged on a Chinese woman, Michael’s cosmetically bleached face was testimony to a damaged self-image. And his arrest papers from Santa Barbara County, which listed him at an anorectic 5 foot 11 and 120 pounds, indicated problems with his body image that didn’t stop at the neck.
As for his criminal prosecution, most of us will never know for sure what, if anything, he was guilty of. But anyone who saw the TV interviews he gave about his activities with children would have to concede that, as in so many other areas of his life, he was his own worst enemy.
Jackson’s awkwardness with fame caused embarrassingly inappropriate behavior, like climbing on top of a van to wave to fans at an arraignment, as if he were a conquering hero. And he always seemed ill at ease with adulthood, like a dysfunctional Peter Pan.
As a paunchy white guy who can’t sing or dance, and is, unfortunately, still wearing the face I was born with, I can’t even begin to understand what would drive a person with so many gifts, and all that money, to sabotage his own life. It’s better we remember him for the music, which were the green shoots of hope and joy that grew from a sad and self-damaged life.
The legacies of talented entertainers, from Janis Joplin to Jimi Hendrix, are usually best recalled through what they produced, rather than what they were as people. In this, he most resembles his deceased erstwhile father-in-law, Elvis, whose own life became a caricature that mocked his talent after his death.
There are probably lessons to glean from Jackson’s tragic life, but it’s doubtful anyone will learn much from them. A few years from now, people will be mourning another damaged and self-destroyed celebrity — interpreting yet another life story that we’ll never really understand.
As is almost always the case, Shakespeare said it best: “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Happily, the echoes of the music remain.
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