Probably the most shocking aspect of Micheal Jackson’s death on June 25, other than its astonishing suddenness, is the minuscule nature of it. Jackson spent his entire life perfecting the art of the spectacle. From mini-movie videos like “Thriller” to the promotional statue of himself from 1995, Jackson’s very presence became the subject of immense media attention and sensation wherever he appeared. To die of cardiac arrest seems to be an affront to his legacy.
His legacy, however, will undeniably be preserved through an amazing career despite an often troubled adult life. Ask anyone who grew up during Jackson’s domination of the music charts and their memories are like branches on the tree of their youth. I vividly remember being both frightened and awed when I first watched the “Thriller” video. I sang along with my mother when “Bad” was first played on the radio. I saw her go out and buy the single that same day. I also remember engaging in spirited debates with my sister about what exactly he was singing at the chorus of “Smooth Criminal”- (“Oh, he’s saying ‘Annie are you OK, Annie are you OK.’ So it’s not ‘Any of you walking???'”).
He broke ground as a performer. He unleashed the moonwalk during the 25th Anniversary Motown special and become the first African-American performer to have a video shown on MTV. He was next to The Beatles and Elvis Presley in terms of global influence. Jackson was the most successful male solo performer in history, selling 150 million albums worldwide.
When he performed on stage, he spared no expense to give the audience an unforgettable show. His concerts were elaborate. He would take the floor donning a fedora, T-shirt and trousers that exposed his ankles, and danced and sang in his trademark high tenor for 90 minutes before leaving the audience in awed disbelief. His level of showmanship was exceptional.
But the tragedy of Jackson’s life was that he never advanced emotionally beyond that shy young man searching for a sense of belonging. Jackson was like that kid in the school cafeteria looking for a welcoming table to sit at. He spent many of his adult years still wondering past those full tables. Even when Jackson had conquered the music world with 1982’s “Thriller,”- the highest selling, non-greatest hit album of all time-he still seemed to withdraw from the very media that helped launch his career.
I compare the career arc of Micheal Jackson to that of filmmaker Orsen Welles.
While I would certainly acknowledge that Welles never achieved the global relevance of Jackson, both men lived very comparable lives. Both were child prodigies whose artistic endeavors compromised their respective childhoods. At the age of 10, Jackson – ironically considered mature beyond his years – fronted the Jackson 5. At the same age, Welles was writing plays, poetry and articles for a newspaper.
Both peaked in their mid-20s. Michael Jackson recorded “Thriller” when he was only 24. Welles made the transition from radio/theater to movies with his first film Citizen Kane at the age of 26. Both men were also the subject of much media scrutiny.
Jackson didn’t help his cause by putting himself in the position to be accused of child molestation twice. But the media was clearly biased against him during the last 20 years of his life. Both Wells and Jackson found counter-productive ways to cope with their emotional pain. In several public appearances leading up to his death, Jackson looked gaunt and emaciated. There was talk drug use at the time of his death. Welles simply ate. He needed to be ferried about in a wheelchair in his later years because of his massive weight.
Both men spent their later years mostly in the shadow of their past glories. Each died of heart failure in Los Angeles in virtual isolation and in extreme debt. But as for Jackson, he was a unique and visionary performer, unequaled in both his ambition and inspiration on popular culture. Yet, somewhere in Jackson’s childhood, he lost a feeling of acceptance and security every child needs.
He named his Neverland Ranch after the mystical place where Peter Pan-who never grew up-could live out his fantasies with The Lost Boys. There, Jackson seemed to be looking for an escape from the harsh realities of adulthood. That fantasy bubble, though, would eventually burst.
I can’t help but wonder whether Jackson himself ever longed for some element of his childhood that was forever lost to him.