How do you know you’ve made an indelible impact on culture?
Listen: this story has been told so many times it is inextricable from the history of America. F. Scott Fitzgerald infamously (and incorrectly) declared that there are no second acts in American lives, but he was writing his own epitaph at the time. Little did he know that artists, and later, politicians, would perfect the Lazarus routine to the point that it was itself an art form of sorts.
Some great American artists couldn’t handle the hype of their success, or remained paralyzed by the prospect of following up their uncanny grand slam (think Ralph Ellison after Invisible Man for the prototype). Some artists famously flamed out in part because of the pressure or else were consumed by their own demons (insert any number of movie stars and rock gods—James Dean and Charlie Parker remain the heavyweight champs of this routine). Some artists never had a choice in the matter: what can we say about the fact that Melville received less than a little acclaim after he wrote Moby Dick (even his good friend and contemporary critical darling Nathaniel Hawthorne—to whom Melville’s masterpiece was dedicated—thought little of the book, revealing him as either an exceedingly poor judge of genius or else an insecure literary prince who could not brook the very real competition Melville presented), and the man who may be our great American author (at least of the 19th Century) died broke, unknown, and embittered.
But none of these case studies can come close to approximating the one-of-a-kind wunderkind who became the King of Pop. His story is unique, and will likely remain the triumphant and ultimately tragic cultural touchstone of our times. He had already lived at least three lives before he died, each one more improbable than the last.
I will leave the career-spanning overviews and detail-oriented obituaries to the myriad individuals who are more qualified (not to mention more interested) than I to properly assess Jackon’s short and unhappy existence.
I can offer some opinions and recollections of what it was like, in real time, to witness Jackson’s awesome and irresistible trajectory. Any pronouncement, no matter how passionately proposed, is ultimately irrelevant regarding what constituted the ideal demographic for Michael’s steady rise and sluggish fall. All I can say is that I was a kid in the ’70s, and I remember loving the Jackson 5’s songs and watching their cartoon reruns on TV. In other words, I was the ideal age to experience it, and still remember it. To assert that Michael was the all-American pop icon is both facile and also an indication of how naive and blissfully unaware people my age were to… well, too many things to count. But in MJ’s case, young fans were oblivious to the behind-the-scenes angst that crippled his childhood. That he was abused is undeniable and well-documented. It also scarcely scratches the surface of the pressures and pains that were inflicted upon him. Even a cursory acknowledgment of what he’d been through, before becoming a teenager, should leave the most cynical critic astonished that he was able to create the lasting work he did, as an adult.
Flash forward to 1979: Off the Wall was the ubiquitous hit record, and every time you turned the radio on you heard “Rock with You” (which, incidentally, sounds every bit as fresh and funky three decades later). Jackson was on top of the world. It seems fair to suggest that nobody, including the young superstar, had any idea that he was about to own the world.
Thriller, of course, changed everything. It made all that came before it prelude, and everything—especially the not-so-good things—that came after an epilogue. People who weren’t around then probably can’t imagine it, but Jackson was the biggest thing in the universe circa 1983 (and into 1984). It wasn’t even close: he was as prevalent as Coca Cola or McDonalds, and it was as easy to avoid him as it was to avoid breathing. If you were alive, you were aware. Like it or not.
In fact, if Thriller had not happened, people from my generation might be fondly recalling how they skated to “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” at the roller rink. Or how great those Jackson 5 songs still sound. But, of course, Thriller happened. And we can (and will) talk about, and remember, all the songs, all the videos, and the brand that Michael Jackson became during that span of commercial dominance.
But for now, I’m going to talk about the moment. You know what I mean. The performance of “Billie Jean” at the Motown 25 TV special.
I still get goosebumps every time I watch that. Now that he is gone, I’m sure each subsequent viewing (and there will be many, as I don’t expect I’ll ever tire of watching it) will be burdened with a melancholy even more profound than the one I would have felt anytime up until June 25, 2009. In other words, even before he passed on, watching a moment like this obliges one to relive one’s youth; it’s inescapable. So, naturally, one can’t help lamenting that loss of insouciance, of Innocence (with a capital I) and the many things time takes from us.
The previous generation had the moon landing; we had the moonwalk. That is not intended to be overly coy—I actually think I would invoke the moon landing regardless of the obvious word association. In my opinion, the few seconds that Jackson spent introducing that new dance move to the world are the defining cultural moments of my generation. In fact, I can’t readily think of anything else that enters the discussion. People have spoken about the other MJ, Michael Jordan, having played basketball better than anyone else did anything. We could find other examples (Daniel Barenboim playing Beethoven piano sonatas; Flannery O’Connor writing fiction; Glenn Beck being an asshole), but I propose that this performance is the apotheosis of what a pop star can achieve. No one, before or since, has been better at being a star, at seizing the moment, at overtaking the world by force of will and talent, quite like Michael Jackson did that evening.
What is truly remarkable is not merely how incredible it was, then, but how inimitably cool and untouchable it remains, now. Everyone saw that and everyone reacted to it. It was (and is) impossible to be wholly unaffected or unmoved by what happens during those five minutes. There are probably people (perhaps lots of them) who still won’t see the art or genius (and the many layers of that genius: the song itself a slice of irrepressible pop perfection; his dancing; and the fact that he is lip-synching it) of this moment, but it’s simply not possible to remain indifferent. You can fail to acknowledge this the way you can fail to acknowledge the Grand Canyon as you are being pushed over the edge, eyes shut and screaming all the way down.
A confession. I was not necessarily a fan. I certainly was able to appreciate that dancing, and that song (and any male my age who attempts to deny that he desperately wanted to perfect the moonwalk is lying through the acne-glazed haze of adolescent recollection). It was a bizarre time to be a teenager: All the girls in school loved Michael Jackson, and all the guys loved Jim Morrison. Oh wait, that was just me? Well, as corny as I would have considered it then for any dude to have a poster of Michael, I am not particularly proud to reconsider the prominent spread of leather-clad Lizard King photos on my bedroom wall. I say this only to underscore the impact Jackson had at the time: I was well tired of the non-stop hype and ceaseless radio play (seven Top 10 singles?!), and it was simply beyond human capability to separate oneself from Thriller’s impact. You may not have loved it (you may not have even liked it), but I have never spoken to anyone who actually hated it. I’m sure there is someone out there, someone who also hates the Sistine Chapel and the Lincoln Memorial. Or Moby Dick. (Just kidding, sort of.)
We all know what happened next: Icarus flew too close to the sun, and none of the bills he earned could ever break his fall.
I am also content to let the historians, the haters, and the opportunistic biographers slash and snap at this detritus like piranhas in a feeding frenzy. I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest we’ll soon have more detail than we’d ever want to imagine about all the things that did (and didn’t) happen when the media cameras weren’t rolling. By the ’90s, it’s not a stretch to suggest that his music took second billing to his increasingly surreal escapades.
And it’s at that point that we’ll be unable to resist the analogies. Neverland Ranch? Was Jackson the real life apotheosis of Citizen Kane? Perhaps he embodied the American tragedy implicit in the eponymous hero of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby? For me, those two works offer the finest, and final, take on how money and memory trump success and satisfaction. A person with a troubled past can never escape the shadow forever hanging over his present. Add almost unlimited power and all bets are off. And while Michael Jackson epitomizes the eternal child in search of a childhood he never had, his tragedy is both deeper and more disturbing. As such, I believe Jackson existed as a sort of inverse Dorian Gray. That antihero traded his soul for eternal youth, but the evidence of his decay was hidden on the portrait he fastidiously kept from public view. Jackson’s metamorphosis (the physical and spiritual) unfolded right in front of our often disbelieving eyes.
Ebony and ivory, anyone? This transformation was somewhat beyond Dorian Gray because it was real, and this did not represent the comparatively straightforward (and, of course, fictional) deal with the devil: this was hubris facilitated by money and modern medicine. What Jackson did to himself would have been literally unimaginable a generation earlier, and perhaps been done with a greater degree of proficiency a generation later (that, of course, is an appalling commentary on how we’re “evolving” as human beings and what we can accomplish in the name of vanity). It was unseemly, it was embarrassing, and above all, it was unfortunate that it served to nourish the insatiable tabloid zombies who live to profit from the pain of others.
But more than a little of Michael’s anguish was self-inflicted. True, he engaged in an often futile effort to find things he could not have, but he did look for them, using the muscle his money provided to plow through the world, a fragile bull in a not-so-delicate China shop. Ultimately, the only thing he broke was himself. And even at his most irresponsible (or despicable, if only a handful of the charges he successfully settled out of court were legitimate), it was difficult not to feel intense pity for this child crammed inside a King’s body. Let the myopic arbiters of taste and the more prurient amongst us declare him a fool or a freak. Let the smug quoters of scripture remind everyone that it does not profit a man to gain the world and forfeit his soul. They should be reminded that the world got to him first. I feel nothing but sorrow for his poor, fractured soul and pray that his heart, at long last, is at peace.