Yesterday, people began gathering in front of UCLA Ronald Reagan medical center to pay homage to a man who gave new meaning to the word “iconoclast. ” Michael Jackson first came onto the world stage as a small child with a gorgeous smile and smooth dance moves. He was just 11 when the Jackson 5’s first single, “I Want You Back,” hit number one on the billboard charts. Though he started off as the little brother in the Jackson 5, it was clear from the very beginning who the star of this group was.
In 1982, he released what would become the greatest selling record of all time, “Thriller.” In 1984, “Thriller” won eight Grammy awards and sold 26 million copies. I remember watching that night and cheering as the announcers said Michael Jackson’s name over and over again. Many children of the seventies and eighties grew up on his music. Christmas wishlists often included a request for a zipper jacket or a single white glove. Learning to do the moonwalk was absolutely necessary if one wanted to look cool on the dance floor. In years to come, I would teach both of my sons to moonwalk to “Billie Jean,” and reminisce about my youth.
The world watched as Michael’s face and skin color morphed. By the time of his death, he looked nothing like the little boy who sang “ABC.” Many in the Black community felt that he had abandoned his African American heritage, even though he explained the whitening of his skin by announcing he had vitiligo. I, however, will forever associate him with the love I feel for my nappy hair.
I went to school with a young white girl named Amanda, who simply adored him. Daily she spoke of wanting to be just like him, including his hair. She told us that she begged her mother for a Jerri curl. Finally, in frustration, I announced that she would never be like him, because he was black like me. There are not many instances in which black children are able to affirm their identities as good and this is why this incident will never be forgotten by me.
Shortly after the 1984 Grammies, he would earn the nickname “Wacko Jacko” because of his erratic behaviour. There were continual rumours in the press and his appearances with Bubbles the chimp did nothing to alleviate the speculation. He was pictured sleeping in a supposed anti-aging chamber and at one point he even tried to purchase the bones of John Merrick – the Elephant Man. In an interview with Martin Bashir, he suggested that sharing a bed with a child was acceptable. His personal life was a nightmare, even as he continued to be adored by millions.
Michael was haunted with the desire to repeat the success of “Thriller.” His succeeding albums could hardly be called failures, yet to Michael the perfectionist, they paled in comparison. He never completely understood that “Thriller” was a once in a lifetime achievement, but the moment he got on stage all of his self doubt seemed to disappear. Michael was the consummate performer and never once in his long career did he let his fans down.
In an attempt to reinvigorate his career after being accused of child molestation, he married Lisa Marie Presley. Clearly, he hoped that this would sanitize his image but few looked upon their union as a “normal.” The marriage lasted two years and produced no children. Michael would however go on to father a son and a daughter in a second marriage with the nurse of his dermatologist, Debbie Rowe. He later produced a third child with a surrogate mother. Nothing in Michael’s life would ever be typical and though he gained much satisfaction from his art, on his passing, one cannot help but think of the price he paid. Jackson may have been loved by millions, but he was a very lonely man.
It has been revealed that his father’s lust for success often meant that he and his brothers were subject to physical abuse. Michael and LaToya Jackson have both publicly confirmed that they were beaten with belts as children. Such treatment can have long lasting effects. On the rare occasions when Michael spoke about such experiences, his voice was often choked with raw emotion. While other children were out playing and making friends, Michael was in a recording studio, satisfying his father’s ambitions. Music became his life, because that was all he ever knew as a child.
His interactions with children would eventually cause many who had adored him to question his behaviour. He was repeatedly accused of child molestation and was forced to settle out of court for non-disclosed monetary awards several times. In his last entanglement with the law, he was found not guilty. Though he won that case, its shadow would follow him for the rest of his life. We cannot speak about Michael Jackson without talking about his unhealthy relationships with young boys. Though he tried to frame it as a quest to regain the childhood that was stolen from him, it was clear to many that there was a dark side to his desire to be around kids.
He will always be known as the king of pop, however his music also had a social message. Though “We Are The World” was produced by Quincy Jones, few realize that it was in fact written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie. The lyrics to “Heal The World” reveal a man full of love for all people. Devoted humanitarian was one part of Michael’s fragmented persona. “Neverland,” his former home, was continually open to terminally ill children, as he sought in his own way to alleviate some of their suffering.
Michael was a complex man. As Shakespeare wrote, “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” Despite inspiring many of today’s artists, quite often his behaviour overshadowed his talent. In death, he will continue to be an enigma, though so many of us felt that they knew the sound of every beat of his heart.