The king is dead, long live the king
So you may have heard that Michael Jackson died yesterday at the not at all ripe old age of 50. Or you may not have heard, it’s been kept pretty quiet in the media. If you haven’t, to clarify, yes, Michael Jackson, one of the biggest stars of all time, alleged child molester and all around odd human being passed away yesterday in California of cardiac arrest, cause undetermined as of yet. The not terribly funny “he heard little boys’ pants were half off” jokes started almost immediately, as did the insistence that nobody should be mourning the death of a pedophile who got off easy through a starstruck court and the inevitable sneering at people who take celebrity deaths a little closer to heart than perhaps is healthy.
I’ve always tried to avoid getting too emotionally vested in musicians and other celebrities, or at least, anywhere beyond enjoying their music, lest I become like those screaming, sobbing girls you see in old performance reels of the Beatles, or worse the type of disaffected kid who carved up his arms when Kurt Cobain committed suicide. It never seemed a good idea to me to convince yourself that a particular singer wrote a song with you in mind, or that you “know” a particular actor somehow. Ask Robert Pattinson, who nearly got hit by a car trying to run away from fans recently, how much he really enjoys that level of devotion. However, it’s always a little weird for me when a celebrity, particularly one of the magnitude of Michael Jackson, dies, simply because I assume celebrities can’t die. When your dog or your grandma dies, you’ll never see them again. Celebrities never really go away even after they’re dead–we’ll still be talking about Heath Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight for years to come, radio stations will still play ‘Thriller’ every Halloween until radio doesn’t exist anymore. It’s bizarre to think that they’re not around anymore to continue enjoying the acclaim and the royalties.
Gawker probably mirrored my thoughts on Jackson’s death the most accurately in their end of the week news roundup.
Michael Jackson, quite possibly the weirdest and most talented motherfucker on the planet, died this week. He was 50. And weird. This provided opportunities for more asking-for-it behavior from Perez Hilton, po-faced investigations into the national mood, and, of course, nonstop news coverage of salacious tabloid details. He will be missed, because for some reason everyone kinda thought there was maybe a chance he’d eventually get some small amount of his shit back together enough for him to produce good music, again. It’s all pretty fucking sad. And if you think his music will someday overshadow his bizarre life, we’d just like to ask if you know how Elvis died.
It’s amusing to me to see people complain about the near-constant media coverage of Jackson’s passing and the oft-repeated recaps of his career from cute little black kid to anorexic white woman, as if to suggest that he just wasn’t really all that important of a person. Hate to tell ya, folks, he probably does warrant that kind of coverage. Whether you were a fan of his music or not, Michael Jackson was the most successful pop star of all time. Not for one year, not even for a couple years before fading into obscurity, of all time, named as an influence by pretty much everyone in pop and R&B who followed him. He was one of the most important, iconic figures of the 1980s. I know, I was there. I don’t quite remember when Elvis died, but I have no doubt that that event garnered an equal amount of media coverage, minus Perez Hilton’s catty commentary and Twitter, obvs. I have a pretty good recollection of John Lennon’s death, the tribute issues from People magazine, the news footage of tearful fans gathered outside the Dakota, other celebrities offering their condolences. Would anyone claim that either of those performers were undeserving of that kind of coverage?
Whether you think it’s hyperbole or not, it’s true that we’ll never see another star quite like him, not necessarily because of his talent, but because it’s the nature of what the music industry has become. Today’s pop stars are designed to be disposable, cranking out one or two hits before moving along and being replaced by the next pop star. They come and go so fast and are so interchangeable that it’s now possible for someone to be a successful pop star while more than half the world is only dimly aware of who they are and what they sound like. It was more than a year after it came out before I finally heard Amy Winehouse’s ‘Rehab.’ I only just heard Lady GaGa for the first time a couple weeks ago, at a hamburger restaurant, yet she’s on the cover of the Rolling Stone and selling out stadium concerts. I suppose part of that is my own doing, as I haven’t bothered much with the radio in a long time, but it’s also because the music industry is now almost entirely youth-driven, even though young people are notoriously fickle and disloyal, particularly when it comes to celebrities–read Oh No They Didn’t and note the skewed ratio of negative to positive comments regarding most current “superstars.” Does anyone seriously think we’re going to be hearing much from Katy Perry or Jeremih in a few years? All I know about Jeremih is that he sings some song called ‘Birthday Sex,’ which I’m sure is catchy but mostly forgettable.
It was pretty much impossible to escape Michael Jackson from 1982 to 1988 or so. Even children in tiny villages in Zambia were photographed wearing t-shirts with his pre-surgically mutilated face on it. He had a thoroughly universal appeal, crossing races, genders and age groups. You know where I heard Thriller the most often? In my mother’s car. She loved that album so much she owned two copies of it, one on vinyl to listen to at home and another on cassette to listen to in the car. Whenever the video for ‘Thriller’ came on MTV, which seemed to be about every fifteen minutes or so, we made a point of watching it as often as possible. Now there are entire days in which MTV doesn’t play a single music video at all.
It’s understandable that Jackson’s incredibly weird lifestyle and persona, once quirky and amusing before eventually becoming just creepy, would overshadow his contribution to music. Despite not actually being convicted of child molestation charges, it’s impossible to let that go, simply because it was plausible. There got to be a point where you couldn’t really put anything past him. The charges, the from out of left field marriages to Lisa Marie Presley and a frumpy, middle-aged nurse, his three curiously white looking children (two of which have the same first name), keeping up an eternal child/Peter Pan persona well into his thirties and forties, his bizarre claims that he was going to open an amusement park in Poland followed by playing Edgar Allan Poe in a movie, and of course that face, God, that face, was what kept him in the media the past fifteen years, when ideally he should have been in the studio trying to top Thriller and Bad. Or even better, he could have quit while he was ahead, happily living off the royalties and continuing to influence people like Justin Timberlake and Beyonce, maybe coming out every once in a while to perform his hits, like Stevie Wonder. Would he have been happy not always trying to make some sort of comeback, with the help of shady Saudi Arabian businessmen or whoever? I don’t know, but I can’t possibly imagine he was happy living the life he had.
The saddest part about Michael Jackson’s death (other than the fact that Entertainment Tonight bragged about having an “exclusive” up close picture of the apparently dead Jackson on his way to the hospital) is that we’ll never really know what drove his bizarre personality, if it was his rumored, certainly quite likely mistreatment by his father, if it was something organic, or if he, like a lot of celebrities, just fell prey to prescription drug use. Unless he kept a bunch of diaries somewhere, which is unlikely, all we have, all we’ll ever have is speculation, tabloid imagery and bad jokes. Oh, and the music. There is that, at least.