June 26, 2009

Peace, Mike.


I was born six months before Bad hit shelves. That is to say, my familiarity with Michael Jackson's salad days grew not during their moments of inception--I was far too young--but rather in glimpses of recollection: Halloween costumes, music videos on public access television, my dad trying to moonwalk in socks across the kitchen floor (emphasis on "trying"). I grew up in a time when his invincibility had long since begun to fracture under the scalding gaze of the limelight, but his adherents were just as prevalent as his detractors and satirists.

After all, Michael Jackson was not merely the cornerstone of modern pop music, but the very embodiment of American pop culture. The public saw him make the impossible leap from musical wunderkind to American sex symbol, propelled him to dizzying levels of superstardom, and then slowly began to chip away at the pedestal beneath him. The vitiligo. The plastic surgery. The perennial accusations of child molestation. The speculations of bankruptcy. I don't think the wealthy should be granted double standards, and pedophilia is no laughing matter, but Mike's life is a bitter example of how quickly the public eye can eviscerate its own heroes.

His death, naturally, has sparked the latest round of caprice. In the first postmortem moments it has finally become taboo to speak ill of his eccentricities, a collective exhortation to remember him for his superlative music and not his maladies. I welcome the celebration, a fitting if not melancholy conclusion to a man whose artistic contributions have a profound resonance to this very day. Undoubtedly his passing has helped many to remember how many people he's entranced over the years, but it cannot come at the expense of public amnesia. I do not mean to say that we should not recognize his artistic prowess first and foremost, but rather we should view his public decline in a far different perspective. To ignore the troubling parts of his life is to bypass our own complicity in the matter.

Perhaps I am being too harsh, for I am certain that many of his mourners never turned on him in the way that mainstream media has encouraged us to do. But I am also reminded of that memorable scene from Three Kings, when an Iraqi soldier suggests that Mike's facial transformations are symptomatic of a public that has grotesquely mistreated him. "He did it to himself!" is the American response, a frantic attempt to self-exonerate. Yet the "enemy's" words are ultimately far more pressing--"Michael Jackson is pop king of sick fucking country." We cannot claim public ownership of Mike's music without understanding that the other side of his life is equally ours as well. His eternal quest for childlike innocence and lavish consumerism were the symptoms of a disease that was not grown in his mind alone--they were the cancerous attachments to the same avenues of communication and distribution that brought his music to the masses. Again, Mike was pop culture, the posterchild of a public instinct that seeks solace in commodities, in the exorbitant sanctum of Neverland Ranch, and that drowns out the tumult in the prescription drugs that possibly took his life.

I truly hope Michael Jackson has found the peace for which he's been looking, the serenity that could neither be bought nor swallowed daily. He may not have left this earth with the dignity that the public sapped from him over the years, and it is not enough that we might retroactively restore it only in his eternal absence. Yet it is the least we can do--when the stinging shock of his loss comes to fade and the next media hype beckons for our ephemeral attention spans, to remember MJ not only as a musical giant but a public sacrifice, to confront the idea that we were as easily captivated by the witch hunts that tailed him as we are moved by his discography. Lest we think, when the shit hits the fan, that he brought it all upon himself.