The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Michael Jackson: 1958-2009

Written by: Harrison Weinhold, Special to CC2K

ImageOur collective opinion of Michael Jackson has changed overnight. Days ago, a joke about the accused pederast would draw laughs, but now they’re inappropriate. Now we have to find a way to understand a life and a death that we hadn’t planned on understanding just yet.

Honestly, astonishment is reasonable, but can we really be surprised? Jimmy Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, JFK, Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana, Pac, Biggie … so many names of those who died tragically at the top of their game. Michael Jackson is not one of these names. He died a frail, sick man, wasting away under the enormous stress of insurmountable debt and the pressure of a planned comeback. Couple this with the exacerbated effects of drug dependency and you find the basic ingredients of the 21st century celebrity demise. The shame is not so much in his death as it is in the fact that he succumbed to the bizarre, unnatural world created by his fame.

Jackson began performing professionally when he was 8 years old, and continued to stay significant for most of his life. We sometimes overlook the fact that he had his start in Motown in 1968, among the likes of Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight. Despite severe emotional and physical abuse from his father, Michael prevailed as a child star, but this was a gift and a curse. From the moment of his stardom at age 11, Michael was never out of the spot light long enough to forge meaningful relationships, enjoy his childhood or lead a normal life.

In 1979 Jackson released his first solo album Off The Wall. The album generated four US top 10 hits, including the chart-topping singles. Off the Wall eventually sold over 20 million copies worldwide. In 1980, Jackson won Billboard Music Awards for Top Black Artist and Top Black Album and a Grammy Award for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance (for “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”). 1982 would be the year that changed the face of music and solidified Michael as the greatest entertainer of all time.

The release of Thriller in 1982 changed the landscape of American music and the music industry as a whole. The album stayed in the top 10 of the Billboard 200 for over a year and sold over 109 million copies, making it the best-selling album of all time. Jackson’s album paved the way for MTV’s success and single handedly saved the music industry from 80’s synth pop. In 1983, Jackson’s defining moment came when he did the moonwalk at the Motown 25 TV special, prompting the rest of the world to attempt this dance move for eternity. The 8 Grammys that followed Thriller were but a side note to the album’s effect on the world.

Jackson released four more multi-platinum albums after Thriller. His success enabled him to donate over $300 million to numerous charities and causes. Jackson’s commitment to helping underprivileged children with the Heal the World Foundation and his efforts to increase public awareness for HIV/AIDS are many times overshadowed by his strange behavior and child abuse allegations.

Your opinions on Jackson’s legal troubles over the years may vary, but in the end the true injustice was done to Jackson himself. During his first battle against sexual abuse allegations in 1993, Jackson became addicted to painkillers, Valium, Xanax and Ativan to deal with the stress of the allegations made against him. His health deteriorated to the extent that he canceled the remainder of the Dangerous World Tour and went into drug rehab. Jackson stopped eating, lost a significant amount of weight and believing that a long trial would kill Michael, his family pleaded for him to settle out of court. In the 2005 trial, Jackson was taken to the emergency room twice for treatment. He again suffered drug dependency, this time on Demerol, the drug administered to him prior to his death.

There is no question that Michael Jackson was a strange personality. He created a life for himself that is indicative of a person with “Peter Pan Syndrome”. He created Neverland Ranch, an amusement park where he could surround himself with children and attempt to make the childhood he never had. During his 2005 trial, Jackson was interviewed by a Dr. Katz who concluded that Jackson did not have the pedophile mindset but had regressed to the mindset of a 10 year old. His obvious psychological damage caused by an unorthodox and abusive childhood, together with a lack of personal relationships, made Jackson look like a freak to us. We could not understand how the vibrant and dynamic Michael we knew before had transformed into the sideshow we had come to know in the past decade. But the fact is, we could not understand Michael at all, and that became his biggest flaw.

His death seems a fitting end to the mystery of his life. Although he was acquitted by a jury, Jackson never fully recovered from his trial. Maybe we all have a claim in his death. Comedians, the news, our society, made Michael Jackson out to be a vile and alien being, not worthy of our respect or benefit of the doubt. With his untimely death, our grief is lined with guilt and regret. In March he announced his triumphant return with the This Is It tour, a chilling hint at the near future. The world’s excitement put an enormous weight on the frail shoulders of the ailing Jackson. Drugs had consumed Michael Jackson’s life as he attempted to cope with the overwhelming stress and anxiety of a life he had no control over.

Looking back, we remember that this man remained relevant for half a century. We remember that he is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the Most Successful Entertainer of All Time for 13 Grammy Awards, 13 number one singles and more than 750 million record sales worldwide. Everyone has their own connection to Michael Jackson: “Thriller” and the nightmares that ensued. Your disgust/amusement towards the allegations and general creepiness over the past decade, memories (or lack there of) from nights drunkenly grabbing your crotch and screaming on your tippy-toes to his music, Free Willy, gloves, rhinoplasty … the list goes on. The fact is that in the wake of such an enigmatic life, our reactions of disappointment, confusion and for some, utter breakdown are a testament to how remarkable a person he was. The fact is that the greatest entertainer to ever live did not die on our terms. For 50 years Michael Jackson lived in the spot light, taken advantage of those calling the shots and alienated by all of us through adoration or abhorrence. Finally he rests, arguably at the hand of our society, leaving us with so much to ponder, and ironically, so little to question.