Why the Memory of 'The King of Pop' Matters

by Lisa Torem

6 July 2009

I hope his effusive childlike enthusiasm gives him access to heaven’s gate, where maybe he can reconstruct the childhood he once lost.

He was going to engage in a series of “come-back” concerts in London soon. But then the world received news of his untimely demise. And then the wheels started turning. What have we lost when our artists can no longer deliver the supply we took for granted?

In my local Radio Shack, I met a salesgirl. A stream of Michael Jackson videos were playing on big screens as I walked in. The salesgirl talked to me. She had obviously been put in charge of the videos—the management team just feet away seemed disengaged in our discussion.

She said that when she was about nine, she and her relatives performed the dance number from the video for “Thriller”. She was one of the “creatures”. Her older cousins played Jackson records to her from an early age. She knew that fans had congregated in front of the home where Jackson was born—a two bedroom home in Gary, Indiana, where seven people lived. She wished she had been there to help commemorate the passing. 

It’s common knowledge that performer Michael Jackson’s childhhod was abusive. But what’s amazing about Jackson was his resiliency. Perhaps he didn’t have a choice in becoming the child superstar who cheerfully sang “ABC”—rumours were that his father Joe beat him if he didn’t comply with endless rehearsals and appearances, dance and voice lessons—but nevertheless he stuck with the program, becoming an unparalleled vocalist, performer, and dancer.

But all those primal feelings of anger and disappointment have to go somewhere, and that’s why the visual arts are so telling. In the video for “Scream”—the lead single from HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book 1—in which Jackson performs with his sister Janet, these feelings are fully illustrated.

A humungous spaceship lands, from which Jackson exits. He attempts to defy gravity and spins out of control around the cabin, He expresses rage and defiance along with his sibling Janet. We see broken vases, guitar, tennis rackets, and images of Andy Warhol, Buddha, and paintings of Magritte. At 7 million dollars, it is listed in the Guiness Book of World Records as the most expensive music video ever made. It is choreographed by Jackson, and clocks in at 4:46 minutes.

But was the making of this video carthartic for Jackson?  It was directed at the tabloid media industry for their 1993 coverage of Jackson’s accusations of the sexual abuse of children. Did it serve its purpose, or was it merely a money-making mechanism? Can one’s art ever erase the deep wounds of their beginnings? And did Jackson ever truly attempt to heal himself through the self-expression of his music? Would his audience have let him?

I hope that Michael Jackson found some solace through his gifts. I hope that his fans recognize that there are limits to what art can resolve, but that without the attempt we have bleak stratosphere. I hope his effusive childlike enthusiasm gives him access to heaven’s gate, where maybe he can reconstruct the childhood he once lost.

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