26 June, 2009

And I will take from you your stony face, and I will give unto you a new face of flesh

Michael Joseph Jackson (August 29, 1958 – June 25, 2009)

For those of you who have been away from television, the internet, and other people for the past 24 hours or so, it is my sad duty to inform you that Michael Joseph Jackson* died yesterday afternoon of cardiac arrest in his California home. He was only 50 years old.

It is a definite sign of my maturity and newfound awareness of my own mortality that 50 no longer sounds old. In fact, to die at 50 seems horrendously young. Both of my parents are well past 50--though, granted, neither of my parents receive daily injections of morphine, either. However, the most interesting thing to me about Michael Jackson's death was the varied reactions it received--not from the press, but from everyday people. Many of the facebook statuses, tweets, etc. I read focused on the far-reaching, unprecedented effect of his music. But disturbingly, some people seemed eerily gleeful that he was dead, as if he had done something to offend them personally. "Good riddance," wrote one friend. "May he rest in piss," wrote another. Not since the death of Saddam Hussein have I heard someone's demise so celebrated by Americans.

Huh? Why? OK, I know that he was a strange guy. No denying that. And he was twice put on trial for child molestation. However, he was acquitted of those charges in what seemed to be a pretty fair trial. I followed it pretty closely. One of my favorite pieces of pop culture writing of all time is found here, where Jacob Weisberg elegantly and intelligently defends Michael Jackson against his accusers, not by trying to prove that he isn't a disturbed person, but that his arrested development might in fact belie his general image of a sexually preoccupied pervert. Read it. I wholeheartedly agree with Weisberg's theory that Michael Jackson may well have been socially and mentally incapable of the malicious behavior so many people condemned him for.

I love Michael Jackson's music. He was an incomparable entertainer. But more than that, he was an incomparable celebrity. It's strange for me to think that once upon a time, celebrities' personal lives were once guarded jealously by their agents and presented to the public as a facade: either bleached to the point of being unrecognizable, or completely falsified. Their actual foibles were covered up and/or lied about. But with the death of Elvis and the advent of celebrities like Madonna and Michael Jackson, all that changed. Suddenly their struggles were our business, and ignoring them was dishonest. BOOM! MJ and Madonna birthed the celebrity culture of the 80s, and America was never the same. Modern celebrityhood would not be what it is today without Michael Jackson--or, more specifically, without his father, who shoved all his sons into show business when they were all just children. As Weisberg points out, had he been forced to work in a mine or a factory at the age of seven rather than on a stage, we would have a lot more sympathy for him. Michael Jackson wasn't just the King of Pop music, he was in fact the King of Pop culture.

That's the real tragedy about Michael Jackson, I feel. That he was literally (!) THE MOST POPULAR ARTIST IN THE WORLD. His album sales were insanely lucrative. His influence on Western culture was remarkable, absolutely incomparable. He was one kid who could sing, and his talent and innovation changed the world. And our culture broke him. His parents took his childhood away so he could be famous, and he spent the rest of life trying to move away from the fame and get his childhood back, and failing miserably. I remember my parents using Michael Jackson as a poignant example of how money can't buy happiness. He had everything, and lost it all in his search for something more elusive than a perfectly plasticized and youthful face. Obviously he has to shoulder some of the blame for his poor decisions. But was anyone helping him instead of posting funny pictures of his collapsing nose and making jokes about his weird fascination with Peter Pan? I wasn't.

Michael Jackson was a warning to all of us about what our culture based on money rather than charity (thank you Suheir Hammad) does to people. It breaks my heart now to think about how much he must have been suffering, both outwardly and inwardly, his entire life, and how nobody cared . The public fascination with him was based on his freakishness, not his humanity. I actually remember looking at photos of him a few years ago and thinking to myself, "Wow, suddenly my life doesn't seem so bad."

For those of us who believe in the family of man and the immortality of the human soul, this raises a particularly relevant question: how could we do this to a child of God, to another god in embryo? I would never think of condoning the emotional torture of someone I know personally, so why does it make it OK to do that to someone just because he or she is famous? Who gave me the right? I don't know. But it upsets me that I often feel authorized to say un-Christlike things about someone I don't know just because he or she is in the public eye. Obviously, this is inherently wrong. I just never thought about it in this way until Michael Jackson died.

One of my favorite scriptures in the Old Testament reads as follows:

26 A anew bheart also will I cgive you, and a new dspirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony eheart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh.
27 And I will put my aspirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them.
---Ezekiel 36: 26-7

I hope that Michael Jackson is peacefully reunited with those that love him on the other side, and moreover that he is learning about his intrinsic worth from He who loves even the most strange and the least understood.


*An interesting parallel between Michael Jackson and one Joseph Smith, Jr. (another controversial and misunderstood historical figure): generally, the FIRST son in a family is the one who receives the honor of carrying on his father's name. However, Joseph Smith junior was the third son of his parents (though the fifth child), and Michael Jackson was the seventh child, sixth son. COINCIDENCE? Yeah, maybe. Still, though.


Megan said...

I too was shocked by first the volume of FB statuses and next the quality of them. It was even more shocking when I compared those messages with those when Pres. Hinckley died. Far fewer updates, but at least they were kinder. Interesting. And I must agree with you about MJ. I feel remarkably sorry for him, and always felt this odd sort of connection to him, as he shared my birthday and initials. Weird. But thank you for your thought-provoking post.

Rachel. said...

Elisa, thank you for this thoughtful tribute. I read it more than once, and was struck by it, the lines "america was no longer the same," and "he spent the rest of his life trying to move away from the fame and get his childhood back, and failing miserably." as well as "the public fascination with him was based on his freakishness, not his humanity." Your observations are astute, and what you observe sad.

It also reminded me of my friend Katie's blog post about the same issue. http://thedancingnewt.blogspot.com/2009/06/day-that-michael-jackson-died.html

"You think of all these child stars, and what we do to them with our disgusting obsessions, how we are so quick to point out all the ways they aren't living up to our expectations. But they are people. And we forget that people are REAL. And that every person matters...

More than anything I hope there is a God right now. Is that weird? For Michael Jackson's sake, I hope there is a God. I mean, this was a real person. And I suspect we all failed him tragically. I truly pray with all my heart that there is a God, waiting there to receive this brilliant, anguished soul with open arms."

I hope that same thing.

Newt said...

Elisa, you write so powerfully. Rachy shared the link with me. Thanks for your touching words. This man's works were inspiring, but his life and death were a tragedy in so many ways. Like you, I hope we (collectively and as individuals) can learn from what has happened, what we've done, so that others will not have to endure the same.

Also, I had never heard that Ezekiel scripture. I really like it a lot!