Friday, June 26, 2009

The Man in the Mirror

Yesterday the world was shocked to hear of the death of Michael Jackson. It certainly came as a surprise to me, since he was apparently readying a 50-concert stand in London, which was sold out in hours. The tributes have started in earnest, in every media, and deservedly so. Even National Public Radio is airing a tribute as I type this.

Michael Jackson truly was a stellar talent. His songwriting, singing, dancing and all-around performing skills were hard to equal. From humble beginnings in Gary, Indiana, he became one of the most widely-known people in history. Everybody in practically all corners of the world knew him and his music. After millions in album sales, acclaimed videos and performances, his career was derailed by his personal foibles and demons but he seemed poised to make a comeback, starting next month.

But his personal troubles were almost as staggering as his triumphs. For those of us possessed of a certain maturity (translate: old enough) we remember the round-faced nine-year-old with the high, perfectly-pitched voice belting out "A-B-C" and busting some great dance moves, fronting for his family band. You couldn't help but like him, and his immense natural talent was a wonder to behold. But there was a dark side to his personality which increasingly manifested itself as he transitioned to adulthood. He seemed preoccupied with children and youth and unnaturally so, much to his detriment. Obsessed with the story of Peter Pan, he truly was the young boy who refused to grow up. This had so much to do with the fact that he was denied anything resembling a normal childhood. From all accounts his father was an insanely abusive and strict martinet with all his children, beating them and driving them to achieve almost impossible tasks or face dire physical consequences. Thrust on stage at a very early age, he never really left it. It became so much a part of his life; the constant scrutiny, being in the public eye, being on stage vulnerable for the world to see. But as long as the money came pouring in from the records and concerts, it was certain that on stage is where he would stay. His family certainly bears the brunt of the blame for this, along with record labels and concert producers. Unavoidably, Jackson himself shares some complicity in the making of an extremely public life and the ultimate unraveling of that life. You can't help thinking so many warning signs were deliberately ignored for the sake of making millions of dollars. That is a very powerful incentive which obliterates and obscures everything else.

Through his music Jackson sought to erase the dividing lines between race, gender, ethnicity and sexuality, reaching for a truly barrier-free world. In fact he altered his own body to a nearly-unbelievable degree as he tried to merge all races and genders into one person, himself. As this personal transformation careened out of control, instead of becoming a person encompassing all variations of race, ethnicities or genders, he descended into a nether world, a limbo between the races and genders which increasingly isolated him and turned him into somewhat of a freak of nature. He tried to get past the barriers that our differences create for us, but I have always felt that was the wrong thing to do. Our differences should not be ignored or glossed over or blurred away - they should be celebrated and embraced. They are what makes us different and unique, and human beings are meant to be different and unique. It would be very boring if everyone looked and acted the same. Our differences are our strengths, they are what make us human. Jackson tried to circumvent them, and ended up alone, sad and very troubled. Instead of being everything, he very nearly ended up being nothing.

It doesn't surprise me that the tributes being aired everywhere today all seem to focus on his disturbed and chaotic personal life. That certainly cannot be ignored but there is so much more to appreciate with his music and his artistic accomplishments instead. Everyone mentions his Thriller album and that indeed was a blockbuster, but my personal favorite album of his was Off The Wall, which seemed to me a much more personal and intimate account of the transitions and changes he was going through, as he vainly tried to get control of his personal life and move into adulthood. Thriller was the birth of Michael Jackson, Superstar and Cultural Icon, while Off The Wall was the birth of Jackson the performer, the visionary and the all-too-human boy trapped in a man's body yearning to take the next step to being an adult, and for the briefest of time periods, it was almost within his grasp.

He left the world an enormous legacy of music and art, and I really hope he has found the peace which so tragically eluded him during his fifty years on earth.

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