Michael Jackson was a cultural icon, an amazing talent, a child prodigy and, unfortunately, a person whose personal issues ran so deep that he spent many years hurting himself and others. I can only know what I read about this man and his family – stories of his days on the road with his brothers while I was baking cakes in my Easy Bake oven or bizarre tales about him at Neverland – which means I cannot know much. What I do know is that he died yesterday of cardiac arrest and that his death marks the end of an era.
One of my first “records” was from the Jackson Five – predictably, ABC123. I put the word “records” in quotes because it barely describes the cardboard 45 I cut off the back of a cereal box when I was 4 or 5 years old. (Yup iTunes lovers, that’s how we rolled in 1971.)
So what can we say about a man who was undoubtedly a genius…but who also may have been a monster? How, as a society and as individuals, do we reconcile our greatest strengths and our most detrimental shortcomings? How do we live and let live without degenerating into a culture without ethics or morals or boundaries?Â
I came across the following clip in an NPR article which argued that this moment, a television performance of Billie Jean in 1983 was the pinnacle of Jackson’s career. Before this, the reporter argues, The King of Pop was still young Michael from the Jackson Five. After it, the reporter observes, Jackson began his slow decline into abuse of self and others. Tipping point or no, this clip shows Jackson at his level best as a performer. What does it mean if I just choose to remember him like this? Is ignoring the negatives and focusing on the positives a mark of acceptance and love? Is the alternative, remembering him through the lens of his shortcomings any better, or does it ultimately lead to judgement? Â
I am sure we all will hear many different takes on this in the days and weeks ahead as autopsy results are reported and a star-studded funeral or memorial service is held. I am eager to see how we as a society respond to this news and what it might say about us. But for now, my condolences to the Jacksons and Michael, rest in peace.