Turns Out Michael Jackson was a Human

By Rob Patterson

Reader Bruce Lloyd Kates writes me again: “Now that Michael Jackson has been reverently eulogized and lavishly buried, I’m wondering if there might be some journalist or social commentator around with enough courage to write something intelligent and HONEST about this unfortunate casualty of our society.”

Uhh … you talkin’ to me? I had my say here on MJ a number of years back when he was on trial (alas, it is not on the website, being, I feel, one of my best in this series). I dunno about courage and intelligence in what I have to say now, but I am being honest about what I feel …

Once the news of Jackson’s death hit the ’Net, I posted in Facebook, repeating the perhaps apocryphal line by a record biz exec when Elvis kicked: “Great career move.” And added, “Guess this solves his financial problems.”

Yeah, I was going for the laugh, which some found disrespectful. One person even de-friended me: Steve Ripley, who Bob Dylan recently cited as one of the best guitarists he’d ever played with. That alone would be enough to make me respect the guy. The day I spent with him in Tulsa doing a story on his band The Tractors convinced me that Ripley is one of the sharpest musician/producers I’ve ever run across. I regret that I upset him.

But I don’t regret saying what I did. It immediately turned out to be true. Jackson’s musical career had been on a protracted slide into irrelevance. His sales suddenly shot back up. The many many millions he squandered will be replaced in his estate by new income, just like Elvis.

What I said may seem callous, but to me Jackson had long ago become far more a bizarre character than a dynamic musical entertainer. And I knew what was coming — a media onslaught and a tsunami of agonized public tears — and felt compelled to rebel at the outset. As I said in a later Facebook post, it struck me as sad that the hoopla around Jackson’s passing overshadowed the tragic deaths of brave protestors in Iran. To me that is news that really matters, monumental, in fact, and of possibly vital import to the state of the Arab world and the world at large. Jackson’s music touched millions. But the election protests in Iran mean more.

To be honest, I was more upset by the death at the same time of little-know musician Tim Krekel (whose last song release “Bailout Blue” was recently mentioned in my “Populist Picks” column. At least I knew Tim, not well, but he was a good guy and quite talented.

Of course Michael Jackson was massively talented. I can still recall hearing “I Want You Back” on a jukebox at a Dunkin’ Donuts in late 1969 and marveling with my friends at how the 11-year-old Michael was like a prepubescent James Brown crossed with Smokey Robinson. It was a highpoint of 1960s soul music, if not also one of the last ones. Off The Wall and Thriller were huge albums for many, myself included, and I can’t count the times of delight I enjoyed dancing to songs from those discs. Jackson broke the color barrier at MTV and became synonymous with the term “superstar” (though let’s just forgo the silly “king of pop” title please).

But it soon became obvious that Jackson was not a normal person, not by any means. And now in death he is now being deified, especially by many in the black community, even though his bodily alterations seemed to be all but a denial of his blackness. At his memorial, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Houston) asserted that he’d been found not guilty of the charges of child molestation, as if that meant he’d been absolved. Someone should tell our lawmaker that not guilty in our system of justice is not the same as proven innocent. I read enough about Jackson’s travails to know that the smoke meant some kind of fire, and he even admitted sharing his bed with underage boys, being obviously guilty of bad and highly questionable judgment.

I don’t want to condemn Jackson as he is lowered into his secret grave, though child molestation is a heinous, soul-destroying act. I can even imagine that in MJ’s dysfunctional viewpoint he saw whatever he may have done with those boys an act of love and kindness. I don’t want to condemn his father Joe Jackson, whose reputed abuse many blame for at least some of Michael’s strange pathology. (I did meet mother Kathleen Jackson briefly when I interviewed then 16-year-old and not quite yet star Janet. The family’s mother seemed the picture of the proper and reverent black matriarch, and MJ’s teenaged sister struck me as preternaturally poised and genuinely sweet.)

One can, to a degree, blame fame, but not everyone who gets famous is affected so badly by it (though many do suffer its consequences). And I won’t, like many, blame the media for the 24/7 intense coverage of Jackson’s death and its aftermath, because it’s not the media generating the interest, but simply following what too many people want to know. If anyone is to blame, it’s us, the public, and our society and culture that made this event overshadow so much other news that we should be following (a contention that irked some Facebook friends when I said it there).

I’ll confess I felt relief if not even some happiness at Jackson’s passing rather than sorrow. For all his success and riches, he seemed a very unhappy man — troubled, plagued and haunted. My final Facebook comment was that I hope he is now in a place that is better and happier as peace seemed to elude him in life.

But his death should not wash the slate clean, as that erases some of the important the lessons to be learned from Jackson’s life. Yes, he should be admired and celebrated for the amazing and wonderful music he made, his groundbreaking achievements, and all the joy he brought to many millions. But his life was also an object lesson and a cautionary example. And as shocking and horrifying as his strange behavior was in many ways, it was also a sign of his humanity. To deny his troubled soul is to also deny his humanity. And being all too human, like Icarus flying too close to the sun, fame and success was in the end what probably killed him. Rest in peace, poor Michael, hopefully now in a happier place.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email orca@io.com.

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2009

Home Page

Subscribe to The Progressive Populist

Copyright © 2009 The Progressive Populist.