Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson RIP

I'm typing this in Nessebar, Bulgaria, participating in a bubble of science that exists within its own bubble in this beautiful little vacation spot where people go to bake on the beach, wander among centuries-old ruins, and generally feel cut off from the world. I suppose this is how they feel at Glastonbury (minus the occasional mud and rain), where everything happening out "there" is somehow not real, or is happening in some parallel universe. Nobody is talking about the death of the biggest pop star the world has ever seen, even though BBC news is on the TV in the hotel lobby. Nobody was paying attention to it.

I heard about Michael Jackson's cardiac arrest before I went to bed last night. So I knew what to expect when I woke up this morning, which certainly diminished the shock factor. All of this is simultaneously the most and least surprising celebrity death that I can remember. Surprising because his death was sudden, he was so young, and because most people (and this is one of the few times that "most people" can be stated literally, as in "most people in the world", without hyperbole) can't remember a time when Michael Jackson wasn't a phenomenon nearly on par with many major world religions. But it's also not surprising because he's been wasting away, very much in the public eye, for decades. There's the weirdo stuff we know about (the plastic surgeries, the air filters he and his kids wore in public), the stuff we don't (who knows what sort of pills and drugs he took over the years to cure his ailments both real and imagined), and it all sums up to a picture of a profoundly unhealthy man.

I honestly have no idea if Michael Jackson was a child molester or not (the courts say no), but no matter what bad stuff he was accused of, I always thought back to a comment made by his close friend Elizabeth Taylor. She claimed they had a lot in common and truly understood each other because they both knew what it was like to have never had a childhood. He didn't have what 99.9999% of people take completely for granted -- whether you were happy or miserable, whether you were beat up everyday or had everything handed to you, we all had the chance to grow up. I always felt sorry for Michael Jackson. It doesn't excuse anything he may or may not have done (or said), but I always tried to remember Elizabeth Taylor's comment and to understand him just a little bit better.

That's why I felt good about the way that his critical reputation has been rehabilitated over the past several years. During much of the 90's, it was hard to get away from "Michael Jackson, fading popstar and batshit personality" and to remember "Michael Jackson, superstar and creator of some of the finest pop music ever made". After he went into seclusion following his trial (of course, he moved to Bahrain, so this was not something accidental), the well of eccentric Michael Jackson stories dried up, and the only thing left was to talk about the music. Plus, a new generation of pop stars emerged (Britney, Justin, Usher) who grew up idolizing him, weren't afraid to show it (in their music, in interviews, and in their videos) and honestly didn't seem to give a crap about what kind of person he was. Their brains seemed permanently dialed in to the image of the man-child they watched on MTV and whose moves they imitated in their basements every day. Michael Jackson's music becoming cool again might be the best example you can find about art trumping life (att: Phil Spector), and although we might be conflicted about that as human beings, as music fans it's comforting to know that Michael Jackson's status as a creative genius and certifiable music legend will be forever safe.

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