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Richard Roeper Blog

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.

 

Michael Jackson dead at 50

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.
 

michael-jackson

“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.

19 Responses to “The death of a troubled, and troubling, icon.”

  1. Joan Cruz Says:

    Richard, what a wonderful article. You put it all in to great perspective. RIP Michael.

  2. Randy Says:

    Thanks for that tribute – I’m very sad right now.

  3. Agatha Says:

    Shocking, unbelievable. I mourn him as another person and feel sorry for his family and friends but-

    a) his constant presence in the news while he was alive annoyed us all *out of our minds* and we wished he would just go away and stay out of trouble so why should his death change that

    b) he hadn’t made great music for years so it isn’t really a loss to culture

    c) 99 to 1 he was a pedophile- chances are he wasn’t but the likelihood is that he was- and that’s unforgivable even if you are the greatest singer or dancer on Earth

  4. Newton Gimmick Says:

    You summed things up really well Richard. Great post.

    The man provided an incredible amount of music and touched generations, regardless of what sort of freakshow it all became. Anyone who grew up in the 1980′s, grew up with a lot of influence from Jackson.

  5. Erik Says:

    I’m not sure I agree… I think it’s proper for the public to judge him on accusations of inappropriate activity with children, but improper to *prejudge* and assume that other interactions he had with children were sexually improper as well.

    You make an excellent point tho, that he was a greatly gifted artist we lost. I hope history will remember him fondly.

  6. Tom Says:

    He was very talented and a great entertainer but he’s not on par with the Beatles, he’s not in the same stratosphere.

  7. Michael Says:

    Jackson was as much of an historically accomplished musician as he was a monumental fraud.

    To cite the fact that he was a father is to overlook the shameful circumstances of those births. Most newscasters jumped on the bandwagon referring to “The king of pop marrying the daughter of the king of rock & roll” when he married Lisa Marie Presley…….yet another purchased arrangement to go along with a multitude of purchased friendships and headlines in the fake life of Michael Jackson.

    Jackson did not have “every right to believe he had decades of life ahead of him.” He was deeply deeply troubled, obsessed with himself and out of touch with reality. Aside from the distinct signs that he was a pedophile, he was far from healthy. The plastic surgeries, the gas chamber, the supposed skin ailment where he attempted to make himself Caucasian, the hormones to keep his voice high……..he was the most popular mental case in history. He epitomized the celebrity obsession of our times surpassing his public’s obsession for him by his own obsession with himself.

    He was a perfectionist in his music and dancing. That probably kept him sane up to a point. He was a bright star that fried itself.

    I am not shocked, only surprised that it was a heart attack. We may be on the brink of nuclear war with Korea. It angers me that people are more focused on Michael Jackson and it isn’t because they are taking their minds off of anything very serious. Their minds are more interested in tabloid fodder than an event with consequences that could destroy all life as we know it.

  8. Janet Says:

    A great talent that went astray…I grew up on his music…(PS isn;t the premiere for Bruno?)

  9. Eddie Says:

    Michael isn’t on par with the Beatles??? Hmmm…let’s see he holds numerous records in record sales, he revolutionized the music video, he was the first Black artist to have his video played on MTV, he is responsible for inspiring a whole generation of pop stars, From about ’82 until about ’94 no one was bigger than Mike in the music world.

    Top MJ albums in order:

    1.) Off the Wall
    2.) Dangerous
    3.) Bad
    4.) Thriller
    5.) Invincible

  10. Jim McAteer Says:

    One of your best articles. Way to put things into perspective – it’s about the family and friends you grew up with sticking the thriller cassette into the boom box for hours of fun. I really stopped after thriller – probably because of the weirdness and the idea that I think, “Off the Wall” and “Thriller” were as good as it gets. This is a bad analogy – but Chicago folks will get it. It’s kind of like after Michael Jackson finished, “Thriller” – Michael Jordan left the Bulls (1998). I know what happened later in their careers – but I take with me Billie Jean at the Grammy’s and the Bulls days. Good luck with the book. – JImmy Mc

  11. Michael Says:

    Jackson was as much of an historically accomplished musician as he was a monumental fraud.

    To cite the fact that he was a father is to overlook the shameful circumstances of those births. Most newscasters jumped on the bandwagon referring to “The king of pop marrying the daughter of the king of rock & roll” when he married Lisa Marie Presley…….yet another purchased arrangement to go along with a multitude of purchased friendships and headlines in the fake life of Michael Jackson.

    Jackson did not have “every right to believe he had decades of life ahead of him.” He was deeply deeply troubled, obsessed with himself and out of touch with reality. Aside from the distinct signs that he was a pedophile, he was far from healthy. The plastic surgeries, the gas chamber, the supposed skin ailment where he attempted to make himself Caucasian, the hormones to keep his voice high……..he was the most popular mental case in history. He epitomized the celebrity obsession of our times surpassing his public’s obsession for him by his own obsession with himself.

    He was a perfectionist in his music and dancing. That probably kept him sane up to a point. He was a bright star that fried itself.

    I am not shocked, only surprised that it was a heart attack. We may be on the brink of nuclear war with North Korea. It angers me that people are more focused on Michael Jackson and it isn’t because they are taking their minds off of anything very serious. Their minds are more interested in tabloid fodder than an event with consequences that could destroy all life as we know it.

  12. Stella Says:

    When I was in grade school, I would guess maybe around 1985 my piano teacher pressured me endlessly to be in recitals. I was ill prepared for a certain recital one Sunday afternoon and I completely screwed it up, I couldn’t get thru my music. I was completely mortified. My mom took me to Venture (like a Target) and told me I could buy whatever I wanted. This was a huge deal because we were always really broke. I chose a Michael Jackson poster which hung behind my bedroom door well into my love affair with Madonna days. It was Michael in the yellow sweater vest and white pants. I look at that same image now and I have to think what the hell happened?

    It doesn’t matter in the end, all of his craziness, clearly just that. He got creepy, or maybe he really wasn’t that creepy. None of us had the luxury of knowing him personally and forming opinions on straight facts or even seeing the daily transformation into who he became physically. What we got was his craziness twisted into a media fireball. No question, the man had issues. I couldn’t watch the news drama over his alleged love for little boys. I still find it hard to believe. But most of his actions got to be hard to believe.

    In the end it is a sad story, a man who wanted to live to eternity, most likely accidentally took his own life. This death has the Xanax/ Vicodin/ Ambien cocktail written all over it. I believe in the days ahead we will find out that he didn’t just up and have a heart attack. His heart stopped beating from the pills. It’s a sad life to need to self medicate so much to not hate yourself or your life to the point where you don’t know when to stop. Of course, there is always a chance I am wrong, but I doubt it. How many stars do we have to watch kick it because of “controlled substances” that obviously are NOT being controlled.

    Michael Jackson may have went from the only thing I wanted in the whole store, the only thing that would make me feel better on what felt like the worst day of my life, to someone I could hardly follow on the news because it was too painful to watch, however he was still Michael Jackson. He was still one of the coolest people of my time. I’m still humming PYT recalling a silly baton routine I did in dance class. I’m still thinking of how cool I thought my godmother was for getting me the Thriller video the first day it came out.

    Everyone has the right to live their life as they see fit (within the law of course). He did just that regardless of the snickers behind his back for all the strange things he did. I hope he is finally at peace.

    Tomorrow will be a different day for his family. They will wake up and have the heartache that comes with that first coherent thought of the morning on the day after, Michael is gone. Maybe my heartache is minor, temporary, or just plain weird, but I have a feeling that at least for tomorrow I will wake up and have that same feeling and thought. It’s very strange.

  13. Despina Panagakos Yeargin Says:

    BRAVO! Beautifully stated.

    We all search for our true selves; some of us find ourselves and some keep trying. Usually, only our family and closest friends are along with us on this journey. This talented but sad and sensitive person had the world along on his journey–not something he’d ever wished for, I’m sure. Right or wrong, true or false, all of the horrible accusations and denials and so on, but this guy was a huge talent. It’s sobering and sad, isn’t it, to review such a life as his.

    Praise be to his talent and to the times he shared it with all of us who were there.

    May he rest in peace.

  14. Michael Says:

    This has pareidolia written all over it. Growing up I loved many things and also believed there was a Santa Claus, Tooth Fairy and Easter Bunny. People attribute virtues to things simply because they entertain them yet they discount criticism even when common sense is screaming in their face. To suggest Jackson was only living his life they way he saw fit is ridiculous. He placed himself in the position to take advantage of children. Talent and entertaining people has nothing to do with it.

  15. Jerry U Says:

    In the long run, sharing a bed with a child and not being the parent is inherently wrong.

    I’ve heard arguments about Jackson being ‘child-like’ in nature to excuse this behavior.

    I cry bullshit.

    Now what if the janitor at the local elementary school had the same personality and bent like Jackson had.

    Would that make it alright?

    Be it Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, Sean Penn, and Jane Fonda….their personal baggage doesn’t affect me watching their performances.

    Not so with the King of Pop.

    I have no sympathy for him. Just for his family.

  16. njoy Says:

    MJ will always be remembered as one of the greatest performers of all time. When it came to dancing, nobody could touch him. When it came to selling records, very few came close. However, when it came to creating artistically great work, that is where the problem comes in. Although he made some really good albums (Thriller and Off the Wall), neither of them were masterpieces. They were excellent works that just sold like pancakes. Both albums had some filler, and only around 3 truly great songs in each one. He never made a Sgt Pepper, Highway 61, Dark Side of the Moon, heck, even a Joshua Tree. Get it straight MJ fans, and appreciate him for what he was great at, performing, not creating great, timeless music.

  17. Chris M. Says:

    Me and my friends just agreed that if we behaved like “Jacko” around kids, we’d be locked so far in prison it would be as though we never existed. And we would have deserved it. Justice is blind? Yeah right. Ain’t many millionaires sitting on death row.

  18. ToddC Says:

    >> He was the Jackie Robinson of MTV.

    Lost me there. Did he break racial boundaries in getting on MTV? Granted he set the standard for quality videos but I don’t think that comparison is appropriate.

  19. richard Says:

    Todd C:

    Yes, Jackson broke racial boundaries re: MTV. You have to put it in context. In the early 1980s, MTV was THE driving force in the music business. When a major artist released a new video, there’d be much hype leading to the “WORLD PREMIERE!” of the video.

    Prior to Michael’s breakthrough videos, the playlist on MTV was overwhelmingly white. (This is not just my opinion; it’s all well-documented.) After the success of “Beat It,” “Thriller,” et al., the video jukebox that was MTV became much more diverse.

    It was an important development for artists of color.

    Best,

    Richard

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