Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Michael Jackson died for our sins

WAS I A FAN of Michael Jackson? For a child of the late '70s and '80s -- and an African-American to boot -- that's like asking: "Are you a fan of the sun?" "Are you a fan of the earth's rotation?" C'mon. But some distinctions are in order.

There was Michael Jackson the man: flawed, weak, vulnerable -- the one who danced with death, and stumbled.

Then there was Michael Jackson the natural talent, the consummate professional, the phenomenal songwriter, singer, dancer and all-round flawless perfomer.

And there was Michael Jackson the public persona, the mystery, the symbol, the "icon" -- the idol.

I felt for the first MJ and I hugely respected and enjoyed the work of the second. I don't care much for the third MJ since, as a believer in God, I don't really do idols.

Folks who don't worship a higher power, find lower powers to venerate instead. It's unavoidable, part of our makeup. In practical reality this makes for messy situations. A god here, a god there, a god everywhere. Thousands of gods, endless ladders and hierarchies and taxonomies of deities, often in conflict -- is it any wonder their worshipers are forever in conflict, with each other, with themselves? For example, people whose God or ultimate authority is the state are have maimed and killed others in the hundreds of millions in the last century, simply because their respective state-gods commanded them to do so. It's the same mechanism that leads people to believe Michael Jackson was superhuman. 

But it's evident that like many idols, Jackson himself had a complex, tortured relationship with his status. Arguably, it's the idolatry that killed him.

The ancient Incas had a tradition of taking a servant and elevating him to deity for one day.

Then they sacrificed him.

In exchange for his a brief time as a god, Michael Jackson went to his Maker long before his proper time. Yet like the slave-king -- or perhaps, like most kings down through history -- he wasn't really in charge. His status as god-for-a-day was cynically milked by those who surrounded him: the industry, white-coated drug pushers and other assorted hangers-on and enablers who profited from him as long as they were able. They rode him until finally the ride was over.

What a tragedy for the man sacrificed to provide others not only with entertainment, but for meaning for their otherwise hollow existences. What a tragedy for a family. And what a trauma for a culture. Will this serve to jar us awake, close a chapter in American history, break the spell of celebrity silliness and allow us to be grown-ups again? Will it help us shut down this out-of-control star machine that chews people up and spits them out -- often, into a waiting grave? 

Will it help nail shut the coffin of celebrolatry, at least for a few of us-- allow us to go back to letting God do his job, and entertainers theirs? 

Or will we remain a Michael Jackson nation, alternately stroked and traumatized, so at the mercy of forces beyond our control we feel the need to retreat into a cocoon of magic kingdom make-believe?

LEFTOVER THOUGHTS: About the pedophilia rap, I still don't know what to think. We know the guy was warped. We know he had an interesting porn collection but porn -- or, let's say, a nude and partially-nude art collection -- but contrary to popular rumor, it was not kiddie porn, according to the evidence released by police.* We know he loved children, but it's not clear that he loved children that way. Part of me wants to believe that his thing about children owed to the fact he was in a very real way a child inside -- for better and for worse -- and in that sense, was only preferring the company of his peers.

I HOPE ALL aspiring and working young singers will avail themselves of the selection of live Jackson footage going back to the Jackson Five, and watch their flawless, professional performances. That's what performers are supposed to do.

* Update Aug. 2010: This site runs down all the "porn" found in Jackson's collection that police bothered to make public. The general finding was that none of the images constituted child pornography or anything else illegal.

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