Back when the Soviet Union was crashing around our ears, Michael Jackson was cool. I distinctly remember when, as a pre-schooler, I enraged my parents by refusing to get out of the car mid-song. It didn’t matter if we had arrived at our destination, I had to finish whatever Michael song was presently playing on our car stereo. To simply shut off the tape was a kind of violation, an act of profound disrespect to the music. My parents still bring up my rabid devotion when they want to poke fun at me at parties. And could you really blame me, or any of the other millions of people who grew up on his music and consider Justin Timberlake’s riffing on the man to be a sad reminder of the days that were?
Today, in a taxi in Amman, I idly wondered if a comeback was possible as a Michael Jackson billboard loomed on the roadside. I noticed that the billboard did not feature a picture, just a dark silhouette frozen in the act of performing the moonwalk. A real-life image of Jackson was not featured to promote his scheduled concerts in London, and it was painfully obvious why this was the case.
While the news of Michael Jackson’s death has already caused an explosion on Twitter, I was tempted to go back to a June 5th advice column by Salon’s Cary Tennis, which featured the letter of a Jackson fan, eager to have the King of Pop perform in the United States again. I recalled the letters to that column, about Jackson “going to seed” and about the importance of holding on to the music, as opposed to holding on the musician. Although it’s hard to let go of one’s childhood heroes, a part of me had to agree.
A survivor of molestation myself, I couldn’t make sense of Michael Jackson’s turbulent history with allegations of child abuse. A few years ago, I actually went out of my way to speak to a bona fide “psychologist to the stars” (he declined to be quoted by name) about possible theories on Jackson. The psychologist in question claimed that Jackson seemed incredibly immature, a kid trapped in an adult body. It seemed to him that Jackson never progressed past a certain stage in his psycho-sexual development, probably due to his difficult childhood and the early onset of fame.
Was he a predator? My expert could not claim to have reached a definite conclusion, having never actually treated Jackson. But privately, having looked at the evidence and Jackson’s history, he doubted the allegations of systematic and deliberate victimization of children. This was, I suppose, a polite way of saying that while Jackson was a mess, he was not some typical, crafty child abuser. This was something that didn’t make me feel at all clear on the subject, but it did make me appreciate the gravity of early fame.
Michael Jackson’s recent antics in the Middle East had only confirmed the obvious continuation of the troubles in his life. Westerners tend to be a little more cynical about Jackson than many of the people far removed from his country of birth, and it seemed to me that Jackson understood that he was more readily embraced abroad. Unfortunately, people who ran into him in the Gulf were often struck by the morbidity of Jackson’s appearance and overall situation.
People are already saying that Michael has largely been “dead” for the last decade and a half anyway, and yet I can’t help but think that his problems started much earlier than that. In spite of them, or, perhaps, because of them (who knows just how madness and genius can interact?), he still produced ground-breaking albums before he successfully mummified himself. And that should count for something, in the end.
As inexplicable as Jackson’s persona was at times, the world will let go of it and go back to the music. As a character in a Stephen King book said once, “… the pain stops and the good memories begin” – eventually. Considering the fact that even my teenage brother – in all of his snarky adolescent glory – can belt out the lyrics to “Thriller,” Jackson’s legacy is ensured.
With respect to Jackson’s grieving family members, I find it heartening that he passed away in the middle of planning a major comeback. Michael Jackson is at peace, while the planet can now safely wonder as to what could have been.