Friday, June 26, 2009

Pop Is Dead: Thoughts and Reflections on the Death of Michael Jackson

- What a weird day yesterday was, and what a confused jumble of pop-cultural craziness is today. Michael Jackson is dead at 50. The boy-king who never wanted to grow up never did. He died before he had a chance to get old. And on one hand, you have everyone trying to all of a sudden ignore the freakshow and focus on the music. And on the other hand, it's pretty much impossible to ignore what might be one of the strangest, most disturbing, most fascinating, and maybe the most tragic stories in the history of pop culture.

It's hard not to think that Michael Jackson was the tipping point - his astronomical rise to fame represented the moment when celebrity culture had finally and devastatingly gone too far. Jackson became so big and so huge that his life no longer bore any semblance to that of a normal human being. As his appearance became increasingly grotesque, so too did his public persona. On the news networks today, everyone is trying their hardest to focus on the music and not the person. But man, all one needs to do is look at a photo of Jackson from the last several years. And as much as the man was one of the iconic figures in music and entertainment, how can you not think: "good lord, what the hell happened?"

I say that because I am just old enough, at 26, to remember a time when MJ still represented the absolute epitomy of cool. Like many of my generation, I vividly remember going to Disneyworld as a young kid, watching the 3-D movie/attraction Captain EO, and thinking that it, and in turn MJ, was the coolest thing since sliced bread. Even at that point, Jackson had that otherworldly, cosmic quality to him, but it manifested in a way such that you couldn't help but admire him. Captain EO freaking rocked.

A little bit later on, I became an MTV junkie and, back then, you'd get a healthy mix of older videos alongside the newer stuff. Every so often, there was a retrospective or countdown of some sort that would feature the Thriller music video, and every single time it was an event. I'd watch it from beginning to end, and if the video was accompanied by the behind-the-scenes documentary that showed how John Landis and Rick Baker put together the makeup and costumes for the shoot, well, even better. I mean, Thriller, in addition to being the ultimate pop song, is pretty much the ultimate geek music video. Rick Baker, Vincent Price's incredible narration, zombies, ghouls, and werewolves? It's sad to think what might have been - between Captain EO, Thriller, that classic un-billed Simpsons role ("Lisa it's your birthday!") and the old Sega-made Moonwalker videogame, Michael Jackson was practically a fanboy icon at one point. I mean, how many kids developed a love of classic horror thanks to Thriller? It's weird to see Thriller now though, in that the zombiefied version of MJ in that legendary video is actually less frightening than what Jackson actually became. I guess it was a sadly prophetic statement when he said "I can scare you more than any ghoul would ever dare try." Sad but true.

When the album Dangerous came out, I and everyone else was already pretty weary of the man behind the mirror. Even in grade-school, you knew something was off about the guy. But still, I bought Dangerous on cassette tape and listened to it about a million times. I loved the album's cover-art. Black or White, at the time, was rock n' roll awesomeness - a very 90's but still very cool track that fused rock and rap, that still gets you up and excited every time you hear that killer opening guitar riff. As a budding young rock n' roller, I loved the collaboration with Slash on Give In To Me. As a young NBA basketball fan, I got a kick out of the Michael Jackson-Michael Jordan mash-up on the music video for JAM. And I still somehow know most of the lyrics to Who Is It. But even by this point, you could't just enjoy Michael Jackson's music without thinking about the oddity he had become. I remember the parody they did on In Living Color, "Black or White," which at the time I thought was completely hilarious, and the thing that really kid of hammered it home: this guy was a bit off.

Jackson's music really was so good though that you wanted to root for him in spite of everything else. I remember watching the 1995 MTV Video Music Awards, which featured an absolutely KILLER opening medley from MJ, that featured him owning it up onstage alongside guitar virtuoso Slash. That was one of those big moments for me where I didn't care about any of the weirdness. MJ was on stage with freaking Slash and he was kicking ass seven ways to Sunday. This was right after Scream had come out, I believe, which was probably the last truly GREAT Michael Jackson song / music video. But it's funny watching the clip on YouTube now - this performance is probably the last time Jackson just seemed downright badass. And man, did he rock. As many have said, his talent was simply off the charts amazing. You really wish that all the other stuff wasn't part of the equation.

But as the years went on, and the trials and the scandals piled on top of each other, the sad truth was that Michael Jackson wasn't just eccentric, but seriously and disturbingly damaged. The epitomy of this might have been the special that aired in 2004 when Jackson was interviewed by Martin Bashir in a hugely-watched TV special. I was actually doing my semester in England when this aired in the UK prior to being re-edited for American TV, so I believe the version that we saw was longer and more in-depth. In England, the two-part special was watched by an astonishing percentage of the country, and for good reason - it was hugely compelling, yet completely disturbing TV. Jackson, looking stranger and more alien than ever, talked openly about sleeping with young boys and other bizarro aspects of his truth-is-stranger-than-fiction life. You couldn't stop watching, but at the same time, it was just horrifying to see what this man had become - a complete mental case, a living monster of plastic surgery nightmares, and very possibly a criminal and child molester.

It's for this reason that I am really bothered by the hardcore Jackson fans who act as if he was some kind of uber-benevalant deity. As much as you wish that the Jackson of 1987 could emerge from the ether and declare this other guy to be a fraud and an imposter, the two are one and the same. And look, I am all for eccentricity. It's what makes life interesting. But there is a big distinction between eccentricity and flat-out psychosis. And man, is it ever tragic. It's tragic to think of all the factors that pushed this beloved icon into this world of insanity. What would ever make a global pop star want to alter his appearance as MJ did? Why was this guy, who had so many fans and supporters, spending his time in creepy relationships with random kids? Why couldn't he have just been about the music and the entertainment and the charity works and good deeds? Why did it all have to morph into this scary sideshow of the bizarre? But to simply ignore all that and paint this guy as a martyr? To me that's simply being naive. He was an amazing artist, and iconic performer. But yesterday wasn't the day a hero died - it was the day that a chapter closed on one of the biggest, strangest, most disturbing stories of our lifetime. For ages and ages, people will be wondering: "Who was Michael Jackson, really? And how could such a seemingly great American story take such a twisted and tragic turn?"

The achievements can't be denied. The music will last forever. Decades from now, a DJ will play "Billie Jean" and it will, as always, get the crowd moovin' and groovin' to that classic beat. Thriller will always be *the* all-time great music video, a Halloween classic and a pop cultural touchstone. The albums, the songs, the history, the breaking down of racial barriers, the influence on countless pop stars across multiple genres and generations ... all of that is indisputable. But there will, sadly, always be that big asterik. That looming question of "what happened?" It's the beginning of the end of one of the most fascinating personalities in modern history. It's strange, tragic, and I don't yet know quite what to think ... and I doubt I ever will.

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