This weekend, I knew it would be impossible to write about Michael Jackson, as most everything has already been said, but that it would also be impossible not to write about Michael Jackson, as his death is dominating the news.
It would be a bit disingenuous of me to write a few pop culture pieces with a shadow like this looming overhead; at this point I'm sure everyone is tired of reading about Jackson, or perhaps just sad and burned out and needing to just walk away from the analysis and the fights regarding his personal life versus his professional contributions. But I think there is something to be said about the way the world seems to be handling this death, as opposed to the other high profile deaths we've seen over the past few years (and can continue to expect, as our "legends" continue aging up), and I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that people who were old enough to remember Michael Jackson in his prime are also being faced, perhaps for the first time, with something that their parents have already been through: the weird aftermath of a childhood idol's death.
There is a generational gap in mourning, it seems: the younger you are, the less likely this is to affect you, as Jackson's reputation and musical career was already in decline by 1993, and many grew up only knowing the plastic-surgery obsessed Jackson who put out mediocre hits like "You Rock My World," while fighting off pretty damning child molestation charges. But if you were a child of the 80s, and you loved Michael Jackson as a kid, you really loved Michael Jackson.
For many of us, I think, Michael Jackson was the first person outside of our immediate families that we really fell in love with. Not in a sexual sense, mind you, but in the way you fall in love with a song, or a movie, or a poem, and you keep playing/watching/reading it over and over again. He seemed otherworldly at times, a Ziggy Stardust who never stepped out of character, walking around in sequined uniforms and red leather jackets and sparkling gloves. There was one summer in the late 80s where every kid on my street was lightly bruised from shoulder to ankle on one side of his or her body from trying desperately to replicate the "Smooth Criminal" lean. We loved him because he was so unlike anyone else. And when he suddenly became someone else, through the surgeries and the revelations about his personal life, we do what people always do when they lose an early love: we shut the door and said things like, "I was a kid, and that was a long time ago."
Now that he's gone, the debate over how he should be remembered will begin, and it will probably never, ever end. He is a divisive figure if only because those of us who are feeling sad over his death are the people who have been students of the school of Two Michael Jacksons: the "old" Michael and the "sad" Michael. Turns out you can't split a person's life in two and pretend that the pieces won't eventually have to be somehow placed back together: in mourning his death, we are also faced with the darker sides of his life, and both sides are just pretty damn sad. The internet has exploded with both tributes and harsh comments: if nothing else, his death has provided people a platform to say the things they've wanted to say for the past two decades, which is typically what happens when someone famous dies—suddenly everyone realizes that they have feelings about someone they've just assumed was going to be around forever. When a celebrity this big dies, it's a reminder that everyone dies. I've seen people writing things like, "I feel like my childhood died," which is, of course, code for: "I just realized that there really is no going back and I'm mortal just like everybody else."
If you're sick of the tributes and the tear-downs, you're in for a rough fucking ride over the next 40 years. We're running out of celebrities of Michael's stature (and he was arguably the biggest one we had), and the ones that are left are growing older, just as we are, and the grief, anger, and questioning over the love, adoration, and support we've given certain artists will be thrown out the second one of them leaves us. The world is a small and strange place: every so often, someone comes along with the talent to move from a town like Gary, Indiana to the record players, television sets, and brains of billions of people across the world, leaving a mark that invites both celebration and mockery. It could be argued that we will never see anyone burn quite as brightly as Michael Jackson in our lifetime, nor will we be as stunned when a light like that suddenly goes out. But talent and fame does not make anyone invincible, nor does it make anyone a perfect human being. Michael Jackson was sublimely gifted and terribly cursed, and the world is now left to deal with the legacy of both.
[Image via Bauer-Griffin.]