"The pure products of America go crazy."
— William Carlos Williams
Only days ago, we were discussing the crackdown on dissent in Iran, a world mired in an economic slump, a pending congressional showdown on health care, and the Argentinian adventures of South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, and then suddenly all that talk stopped.
Michael Jackson died.
In another of those "where were you" moments, my wife rushed in with the news, and we settled in to watch the sad pageant of grief and shock. It takes a person of enormous influence to halt the 24-hour news cycle, and the filmed reports of people pausing worldwide to acknowledge the loss proves Jackson was such an individual. Love him or hate him, this artist's contributions to popular culture are immeasurable.
Jackson had become a touchstone in people's lives. Multitudes grew up with him. Can it really be 25 years since the release of Thriller? I always place myself between the bookends of Elvis, who was 12 years older than me, and Jackson, who was 10 years younger. It's curious that shortly before Elvis' death, just before a major tour, he was bloated almost beyond recognition with the effects of narcotic painkillers, while Jackson's most recent appearances showed him looking confident, if frail. So, even though Elvis died at 42 and Jackson at 50, Elvis appears forever older in my mind, while Jackson remains eternally young. Coloring these images is the memory of Jackson emerging as the leader of the Jackson 5 at age 10 — so commanding as a singer, polished as a dancer, and gifted as a musical prodigy, that he made a good singular argument for the existence of God.
I confess to being an unabashed Michael Jackson fan — the only other artist of the age who belongs in the same category with Elvis and the Beatles — since I saw him on The Ed Sullivan Show in December 1969. When the Beatles appeared on the same program in 1964, it was barely three months after the assassination of JFK, and they brought joy to a grieving nation. The Jackson 5 appeared on our TV screens eight months after the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy and gave particular solace to young, black Americans who gained a new source of pride and inspiration. The corporate, white-dominated music industry sprang into action and offered the Osmond Brothers as a squeaky-clean alternative. The Jackson 5 got a TV variety show; the Osmonds followed on their heels. A Saturday-morning cartoon series was created around the Jacksons; the Osmonds had one within weeks. The Jacksons put Michael forward as their child leader; the Osmonds focused on Donny. It was the old practice of mediocre white artists ripping off black performers that dated back to before Pat Boone recorded "Tutti Frutti."
Jackson's talent drew so much attention at such a young age, you knew he would be a major adult artist if he could only survive the pitfalls that befell so many other child stars before him. Jackson's 1979 Off the Wall solo LP, produced by Quincy Jones, was all the evidence needed to know that the cute little boy had grown up. The Jacksons stopped at the Mid-South Coliseum for their "Triumph" tour in July 1981, after Off the Wall had been released. Portions of the Memphis show were recorded for the follow-up Jacksons effort, the double-album Live, and though the show was critically hailed, it was clear that it was time for Jackson to step out on his own.
No one could have predicted the massive response to Thriller, but something happened to Jackson afterward. Off the Wall and Thriller essentially were rhythm and blues records, but the international hysteria over Jackson grew so far and so fast, it was no longer sufficient to cross over to a pop audience. He needed to dominate the scene, and he did. Jackson brought in Eddie Van Halen to play solos on guitar-based rock songs with a harder edge and soon became the "King of Pop." But by the time Bad was released, Jackson had begun his sad transformation from a vibrant, young black man into an old white woman. I believe it was to make himself more race-neutral to his expanding international fan base, and the stories of Jackson being teased by his father for his classic negroid features are now legendary. But all his cosmetic surgeries and eccentricities never compared to his lasting creative contributions to music and dance.
It was his personal oddities that fueled the tabloid fodder, and Jackson became a target for opportunists. I believe that Jackson was an emotional man-child attempting to surround himself with the only group of people he felt he could completely trust: children. Only Jackson could have been naive enough to admit in a documentary that he shared his bed with young boys in a nonsexual, innocent manner, like a childhood sleepover, and expect people to understand. Even his trust in children was betrayed when the boy he tried to help with medical expenses and emotional support filed criminal molestation charges against him. After the young man and his mother were proven to be grifters and Jackson was acquitted of all charges, Jackson was forever burdened with suspicions of pedophilia and became an object of ridicule. This ordeal led the former Jehovah's Witness into the world of prescription meds, painkillers, and "boutique" doctors.
All the questions swirling around Jackson's sudden death have yet to be answered, but there is an object lesson in the latest saga of Scottish singer Susan Boyle. The only thing we English-speaking followers of pop culture enjoy more than placing a hero on a pedestal to be worshipped is to rip them apart when we realize they are not gods after all. In the aftermath of this tragedy, songwriter Don McLean's lyrics about Vincent Van Gogh seem most appropriate to Michael Jackson: "This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you."