Thursday, June 25, 2009

Michael Jackson: Catalyst for Our Connections

Like half of the universe, I'm stunned by the sudden death of generational icon Michael Jackson. (And like half of that, here I am blogging about it.)

I jumped to Jackson Five hits at high school dances, was amused by his eccentricities and confused by his alleged child molesting. Like everyone else, I know most Thriller lyrics and always wanted to perfect the video dance. When my son was in third grade, his class performed Jackson's "ABC," and as the class frolicked and sang, the music brought us a joyful bond.

While Michael Jackson was certainly stellar in the music world, producing the most-sold album of all time and a distinctive, beloved style, he was also a crackpot in his well-publicized personal life. But the child-dangling and creepy accusations have fallen aside with his passing, and we're left only with an overwhelming barage of Michael-philia. Why?

"Michael Jackson made the culture accept people of color," Al Sharpton, a friend of 35 years, said, "way before Tiger Woods, way before Oprah Winfrey, way before Barack Obama." Yes, he was accepted (as many other black musical performers were) because of talent--so why all the plastic surgery to narrow his face, create a cleft and get a ridiculously upturned nose? Did his face really become white from vitiligo? Michael Jackson's social contributions--even his generous charity work--don't explain this outpouring.

You read of fans immobilized by uninterrupted sobbing: "All you can do is just keep crying. There's nothing else you can do," said Francis Ayalla to the NY Daily News. She heard of Jackson's death "when a subway conductor announced it over the loud speakers of an uptown No. 2 train." Madonna says she "can't stop crying over the sad news." A guy in Times Square who saw it blared in lights locked into the moment: "It's one of those 'where were you when' events." The photos of mourning fans are eerily reminiscent of 9/11 or November 22, 1963. Except that the deaths on those dates defined momentous. Are we emotional just because everyone else is?

Michael Jackson was a talented singer, not a national leader or part of a history-changing attack. He was as notorious for his questionable and objectionable behaviors as he was praiseworthy for his musical impact. I do think the jolt of his sudden demise enlarges its importance; we are reminded of our fragility, and mortality's ability to topple even the highest pedestal.

And there was something compelling about Michael Jackson's weirdness. He didn't like his looks, so he changed his features. He didn't want to grow up so he created "Neverland" in his backyard and surrounded himself--even in bed--with children. He painted his face in bright lipstick and scary eyeliner, and married Elvis' daughter. Then he married Deborah Jean Rowe, his dermatology nurse, and had two children named narcissistically Michael Joseph Jr., and Paris Michael Katherine. His third child, Prince Michael Jackson II was borne by an unidentified surrogate. Living through his exploits drew us to him, but didn't they also separate him from the rest of us?

If there's a lesson here, it might be the way music can bridge so many differences, and can tie people to their significant moments. And Michael Jackson's music made us dance, laugh, pivot, sing falsetto, and tune into a new genre called music videos. He was the catalyst for our own experiences.

This hysteria isn't really about the tabloid life of Michael Jackson, but rather my high school dance, practicing the Thriller moves with my kids, seeing my son's class sway and sing "ABC." Music is a special medium separating us from all other creatures, and it's only perceived via our own emotions and connections. And we certainly don't want to see them die. RIP, Michael Jackson.


  1. I have a neighbor who is a RF engineer (I learned it stands for radio frequency) for a cell phone company. She said so many texts went out when Michael's death was announced that the system almost crashed. I, too, have fond memories of Michael's music and the events going on in my life when his different hits were popular. His death did make me think of my own life, as he is only one year older than I am. I do think other middle-aged people as myself will realize their fragility, as you wrote. Thinking of death makes me think of life. I think I will go hug my children.

  2. The tragic nature of Michael's death is only surpassed by the remarkably tragic life he lived. Both in life and death his story carries with it the resounding message that while one may be surrounded by every material possession money can buy, beautiful and obliging people at your beckon call, limitless and God-given talents, none of these things can quell the haunting of an empty soul. Yes…Michael Jackson’s death is tragic; his life more so.

  3. Thanks, Pia and Pam for your cogent comments. I tend to dismiss pop singers like Michael Jackson as unimportant, but obviously, I'm wrong; they and their music are markers in time, creators of tangible products and their publicized lives give us something against we compare our own.