What do you do when the King of Pop dies? Why, you listen to the music, of course. And what wonderful music it was, and still is: funky, soulful, danceable, intense, plaintive, and catchy beyond catchy.
Nothing can get a crowd moving like those opening beats from “Billie Jean” and just try to listen to “Thriller” without mimicking those zombie dance moves. And let’s not forget “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” “Beat It,” “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing),” “Bad,” “Man in the Mirror,” “Smooth Criminal”… the list goes on. A lesser artist would probably give anything to have just one of those hits, but Jackson had them all, and he made it look, and sound, so easy.
But with someone as iconic as Michael Jackson, you can’t simply stop with the music. He was too big, too influential, too eccentric. However, when we’re confronted by the death of someone as singular and iconic as Jackson, there’s a temptation to focus on the person’s extremes, and we run the risk of attempting to make sense of the loss of a caricature rather than a human being.
Michael Jackson was one of the greatest performers of all time. It’s not even worth trying to deny that. The glove. The jacket. The moonwalk. The award ceremony performances. The music videos. The singles, including those from the days of The Jackson 5. They all add up to something that will never be rivaled nor equaled. And any attempts to do so will simply reveal the pretenders to the throne for what they are.
Michael Jackson was also a deeply flawed, broken, and lonely individual. His many eccentricities hinted at that. Some of them, such as sleeping in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, were false. Others were — let’s face it — harmless, but were nevertheless fodder for the media circus. However, there were other things in Jackson’s life that can’t be so easily brushed aside. There were failed marriages. Charges of child endangerment. Struggles with drug addiction. Bad business deals. The plastic surgery. A tumultuous childhood that contained both abuse and unbelievable stardom. And of course, allegations of child sexual abuse.
To be completely honest with ourselves and Michael Jackson’s legacy, we must recognize and deal with both of these extremes. And therein we find the true sorrow: Michael Jackson was a supremely gifted individual whose God-given talents were ultimately squandered, both by his own mistakes as well as by the vagaries of a culture who loves to both canonize and crucify its celebrities. And the final irony, the truly poignant thing about all of this, is that he died less than three weeks before beginning a farewell tour that could have been his moment of redemption.
All that being said, there’s another temptation with the death of a celebrity… and that’s to give into the fallacy that one’s fame can make them immortal. Things that are of this world will always fade, and fame and celebrity are most assuredly of this world. Fame fades, celebrity falters — all is vanity, as the Teacher puts it. And that’s as true for royalty as it is for us “commoners”.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t celebrate the music, which, in Jackson’s case, is what it always comes back to. And so, I’ll wrap things up with a celebration of sorts: Michael Jackson’s legendary performance of “Billie Jean” at the 25th anniversary celebration of Motown Records.