The death of a troubled, and troubling, icon.
In some ways it was the most shocking death of an entertainment superstar since John Lennon in 1980.
All due respect to the memories of Kurt Cobain, Heath Ledger, Chris Farley, Aaliyah, Selena and the far too many other celebrities who died suddenly, Michael Jackson was in another universe as an entertainer. He has had his health problems over the years, but most of us had no inkling he was experiencing any serious, life-threatening difficulties before Thursday afternoon. (Check the news archives; see if you can find any recent stories saying Jackson was at death’s door.) Yes, we read the reports from time to time about various ailments. God knows we saw the photos and news footage of Jackson in which he looked frail. But Jackson hasn’t looked like a robust, “normal” person in what, 20 years? There was something almost cartoonishly surreal about the man that made it seem like he’d somehow keep going, despite all the rumors and reports about his condition.
It’s easy to say, “We saw this coming,” after the fact.
The pop entertainment world was still paying tribute to the late Farrah Fawcett—–whose brave battle with cancer had been well-documented—–when the shocking news about Jackson was delivered. Within the span of just a few hours, we heard paramedics had been called to Jackson’s home, that Jackson was in cardiac arrest—and then, according to TMZ.com, he was gone. Mainstream news outlets were rightfully cautious, reporting Jackson was in a coma, making sure the story was confirmed before proceeding with their obituaries. By that point, huge crowds had flocked to UCLA Medical Center, to Jackson’s rented home and outside the Apollo Theater in New York.
(At times the tributes took on an absurdist tone. In Hollywood, fans placed flowers, candles and poems on the Michael Jackson star on the Walk of Fame. Problem was, that particular star is for Michael Jackson, the British-born radio host who has hosted shows in Los Angeles on KABC and KGIL. The King of Pop’s star was hidden under the red carpet for the premiere of “Bruno.”)
Wow. Michael Jackson gone. He was only 50, but he was world-famous for more than 90 percent of his life. And what a life. What an amazing, inspiring, impressive, frightening, sad, wonderful, terrible, troubled, bizarre, sweet, beyond-strange life.
He was reportedly abused as a child—and he was either a great friend or a dangerous predator to children as an adult.
What’s beyond dispute: Jackson’s showbiz resume. He was one of the most talented child stars we’d ever seen, delighting TV audiences and record-buyers as the front-kid for the Jackson 5. He was a sex symbol as a young man. In the 1980s, he was the biggest star in the world–—-one of the biggest stars ever. In the same rarified league as Elvis, the Beatles, Sinatra. More dominant than any entertainer who has come along since then.
“Thriller” is one of the Top 10 albums of all time. Singles such as “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” will live on for the next century. Jackson revolutionized the music video. He was the Jackie Robinson of MTV.
His appearance on the Motown anniversary special in 1983 was the stuff of legend, with nearly 50 million tuning in to see his famous moonwalk.
“The Wiz” and the nearly forgotten “Captain EO” notwithstanding, Jackson never made a successful transition to movies. Had he not undergone the multiple surgical procedures, had he not affected that persona that went from Peter Pan to Pure Creepy, maybe he could have done some decent films. Some kind of musical, perhaps. But in the end, he was just too weird even for Hollywood.
The marriage to Lisa Marie Presley, with that infamous kiss on TV? We didn’t buy it. The interview with Diane Sawyer, in which Michael wore gold-plated shinguards? Chilling in its wackiness.
And of course there were the charges, the denials, and the trial, and the lingering doubts. We’ll never know the truth about what happened or didn’t happen, but the known facts are troubling enough. It’s just not right for a grown man to host children for overnights at a home called Neverland.
In the end, ours is not to judge. We mourn the entertainer, and we should respect that his family and many friends loved him. Michael Jackson was one of the most beloved and one of the most ridiculed figures of the last 100 years. His music delighted tens of millions of fans the world over, and he did an enormous amount of charity work—-but he creeped us out with the statues to himself and the faux-military uniforms and most of all, with the questions about the kids he befriended.
Nevertheless, it comes as a shock to hear he is gone. He was the father of three children. He was a greatly gifted artist. He had every right to believe he had decades of life ahead of him. It is a shame he’s gone. In the words of one of the myriad Jackson associates who appeared on the cable news shows Thursday, he was somebody’s father, somebody’s brother, somebody’s son, somebody’s friend.
Nobody has a guarantee on tomorrow. When someone ridiculously famous dies, the best reaction is to say a prayer for that person—and to vow to treasure the people you really love, not in an “I love his music” way, but in a real, human way. The people in your own life.