The Real Tragedy of Michael Jackson
This is not meant as a condemnation of the man's private life, his eccentricities or the accusations hurled against him in the last decade-and-a-half of his all-too-short life. A jury found him innocent of the worse charge (other than murder) that can possibly be made against a human being. We can speculate forever but in the final analysis, we have no other choice but to respect their verdict. My problem with Michael Jackson is a bit more complicated.
One day in the Spring of 1971 I heard a song on the radio by a group called the Jackson Five that was called Never Can Say Goodbye. It was (and is to this very day) one of the most beautiful pop songs I have ever heard. A couple of months later I read in the paper that the lead singer of that tune would be celebrating his thirteenth birthday the following day on August 29. This news piqued my curiosity; I had just turned thirteen less that two weeks before on August 16. Because the two of us were born on the same month in 1958, I would find myself over the years following his triumphs with the pride of a schoolboy watching a favored classmate win the World Series one year after another.
I was also intrigued to find out that, like me, he was a stone-cold fan of Charlie Chaplin and that he had actually met the great man - as I had. Over a span of time, however, the admiration I felt toward Michael Jackson would devolve into bewilderment and, eventually, disgust.
Although I was never a huge fan of his music (my Jackson collection comprises a mere handful of 45 RPMs and one long-playing album) there was never any denying that the man was possessed of immense talent. It was my belief that, like Sinatra, he'd still be packing them in at eighty years of age. How ironic is that?
Last night in front of the Apollo Theater in Harlem, Al Sharpton was lauding Jackson as a shining example to the Black community. I am sorry but no statement could be further from the truth. At a time in history when young African American males were desperately yearning for a positive role model to look up to, Michael Jackson was running scared from his racial heritage.
This is where I will probably get myself into big trouble. After all, I'm just a middle-aged white guy (assuming I live to be one-hundred-and-one). What right have I to stand in judgment against Michael Jackson - or anybody else for that matter? My "right" (such as it is) is as a casual observer of "American pop culture" and nothing more. I attempt here to be neither psychiatrist nor sociologist.
Watching the slow evolution of his facial features throughout the years - the "Caucasianization", if you will, of Michael Jackson - could not have been something that would make your average African American kid swell up with any amount of pride. The martyred South African dissident Steve Biko used to tell his people that "Black is Beautiful". Although Jackson never dared to say it out loud, he spent most of his adult life implying that "Black is Ugly". There is no other explanation for it - none.
And here's some more irony for you: In his heyday, long before the multitude of "procedures" which would eventually alter his looks to such a horrible, even grotesque degree (procedures he would deny to his dying day) Michael Jackson was an extraordinarily good looking guy.
No one could fault him for his first plastic surgery in the early eighties. In the past many Hollywood legends, for whatever reasons (not all of them bad) have sought to "soften" their features. Actually the result of the first operation was pretty good. Picture him as he appeared in 1983 with Paul McCartney in the Say! Say! Say! video. He looked great, didn't he? Why couldn't he have left well enough alone? What the hell was he thinking?
By the turn of the new twenty-first century he no longer looked like an African American male. Do you remember that infamous mug shot after he was arraigned in 2003? He reminded me of Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest. Google both images if you think I'm exaggerating.
What has amazed me since the news of his demise came over the television yesterday afternoon are the writers who have credited Michael Jackson with being the first "cross-over" African American artist to reach a predominantly white audience. Most of those writers are in their early thirties (and, I assume, white) and may be forgiven for not remembering the names Louis Armstrong, Bert Williams, Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Sammy Davis Jr, The Mills Brothers, Josephine Baker, Jimi Hendrix, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Eckstine, Ethel Waters, Bill Cosby, Diana Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Eartha Kitt, Chuck Berry, The Ink Spots, Little Richard, The Temptations, Sidney Poitier, Richard Pryor, Dick Gregory, Charley Pride, Flip Wilson, Stevie Wonder, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, Harry Belafonte, Diana Ross and the Supremes - and a score or more other pioneers who were able to chip away the walls of America's racial divide years before Jackson entered into our collective consciousness. That he was a major influence cannot be argued. But he was not the first - far from it.
One cannot help but wonder what might have happened had this most gifted performer not attempted to hide who he was and made more of an effort to set an example to the desperate children who shared his skin color - or used to share it anyway - the same children who would eventually seek to identify with the faux thugs and jackasses who produce "Gangsta Rap". Some of these kids - most of whom had no conscious memory of the Jackson Five or even Thriller - believed him to be white. And why shouldn't they think that? He was white! He was whiter than I - and I'm pretty damned white! (Irish complexion, you know).
To say that he was a good example for African American kids to emulate is - forgive me - one half step shy of insanity.
We have to give the man his due: Michael Jackson was - beyond a shadow of a doubt - a great artist whose recorded legacy will endure for decades, maybe even a century or more. But an examination of his life is riddled with questions of all that might have been; all that should have been. It is more than likely that this was a severely mentally ill human being who never sought the treatment he so desperately needed; surrounded by fawning sycophants who enabled his sickness by constantly reassuring him that he could do no wrong. As John Lennon once said in the same context about Elvis Presley, another victim of the excesses of fame: "It's always the courtiers that kill the king".
The sad, inescapable truth is that for reasons we will probably never be able to fully understand, his talent and his career were ultimately wasted. Like Charlie Parker, John Belushi, Montgomery Clift, Judy Garland and Lenny Bruce before him, his brilliance as an artist would be overshadowed by severe, psychological torment and an unexplainable desire for self-destruction. Therein lies the real, unspeakable tragedy of Michael Jackson.
Oh yeah, and by the way, Farrah Fawcett died yesterday, too.
Here's a link to read more recent postings on "The Rant":
"The Rant" by Tom Degan