Peter Pan Has Left the Building

by Terrence Butcher

5 July 2009

The King of Pop’s life and times reads like a parallel social history of the United States since Ike’s White House tenure.

The King of Pop has departed his once-beloved Neverland for a more—many hope—heavenly destination. We don’t know why (yet), but his reaper may have been nothing more sinister than a heavy-handed use of prescription drugs. No air disaster over the Andes, deranged fan, or inexplicable suicide snatched him away from us. Just the mundane, neurotic hangups most of us face daily pushed MJ to the edge, and finally over the precipice.

Michael Joseph Jackson was an emotionally-stunted middle-aged man who simply could not abide the looming threat of AARP membership. Even his legions of fans refused to imagine it, faced instead with their idol’s athletic dancing, wiry frame, and his increasingly Gothic visage which seemed to freeze youth in its tracks. He conceived the Neverland Ranch—which may have been devised to trump the first King’s fabled Memphis digs—as a dreamy paean to carefree childhood, even naming it after the island lair of his favorite fictional boy, Peter Pan, a role which Steven Spielberg once envisioned Jackson inheriting. That was not to be. MJ’s protean face, a ghastly work-in-progress, effectively forestalled any film career he might have enjoyed following his landmark horror-kitsch “Thriller” video, a cinematic lifeline after The Wiz failed to make the Yellow Brick Road seem any more enchanting.

Michael Jackson worked day and night to convince his public of numerous things. That he could sing like Jackie Wilson, glide like Astaire, and challenge the record sales of the Fab Four. The fey superstar also attempted to prove that he enjoyed the company of adult females as much as that of pre-pubescent males. Few would argue that he failed miserably at this latter task, though, as with Lewis Carroll and “Pan” creator J.M. Barrie, we’ll likely never know the extent of MJ’s interest in his young companions, some of which shared his bed.

The King of Pop’s life and times reads like a parallel social history of the United States since Ike’s White House tenure. An emotionally fragile, abused African-American youngster spends his formative years in a soon-to-decay Midwestern factory town, the Civil Rights movement bubbling around him, waiting to lift him above the crowd, as he frantically studies Soul Brother #1’s dance moves. He and his older brothers become the first supergroup of the 1970s, with Michael later struggling for independence from mentors/control freaks Berry Gordy and daddy Joe, while millions of his black brethren emerge from beneath the yoke of de jure racism.

Michael explodes like a supernova during the MTV ‘80s, his success integrating the channel, while he becomes the most celebrated black pop icon in human history, blazing a trail for The Cosby Show to follow, as it becomes one of the highest-rated sitcoms in television history. Michael’s more turbulent years, surrounding the millennium, drew a spotlight to the metastasizing cancer of intrusive tabloid journalism, so memorably denounced in Don Henley’s achingly prophetic “Dirty Laundry”, and his mysterious obsession with schoolboys reflected American parents’ increasing fears about who’s watching the kids, and for what purpose. Now, it seems that Jackson’s untimely demise is the penultimate cautionary tale of the dangers of prescripted overmedication, a natural and troubling symptom of a TV landscape infested with poorly-regulated drug ads.

Michael Jackson will forever remain a uniquely American invention, a dazzling figurehead emblematic of our continuing tussles with race, class, and even gender, as evidenced by his pansexual androgyny. Perhaps, in bidding us goodbye at a relatively early age, this scion of a family that could be called the Kennedys of Hollywood, has joined other pop culture lost boys in a hidden Neverland, though not necessarily one of his own making.

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