Michael Jackson, musical icon and self-proclaimed “King of Pop”, died on June 25th after suffering from sudden cardiac arrest at his home in Brentwood, CA. As millions of fans across the globe banded together to grieve the entertainer’s passing, media outlets began launching around the clock coverage of the tragedy, including celebrity reaction interviews, tributes and retrospectives.
I’m a fan of Michael’s music. It’s sort of hard not to be. But while news of his death shocked me, the ubiquitous media frenzy that followed quickly left me numb. There was a dark irony in the coverage of Michael Jackson’s death, one that spoke to the nature of celebrity, and by default, society itself. In life, Michael was as universally celebrated for his talent as he was ridiculed for his eccentricity. The coverage of his death represents the grand finale in a schizophrenic circus; a sort of real life Cirque Du Soleil with a bizarre, morally ambiguous character performing transcendent music and dance in an artificial dream world. There is an argument to be made that the celebrity that was thrust upon him as a child distorted his world view so profoundly that it ultimately led to his ruin. As tragic as his death was, I don’t pity Michael Jackson. Furthermore, I don’t think any of the unique pressures he faced as a result of his celebrity, however extraordinary; excuse the aberrant aspects of his personality. Michael Jackson, for all his fame and riches, was a deeply flawed individual whose lifestyle (because of his fame and riches) was so insular that he lived largely without regard for common sense or personal accountability. It’s been said by many who knew him best that the most endearing , most frustrating aspect of his personality was his childlike nature.
I expected the media coverage would be intense. But I guess I failed to see the broader context of all this until yesterday. While browsing the web I came across a blog post from a disabled veteran who was sounding off on Michael Jackson. He seemed upset that MJ’s life was being celebrated and deified while US soldiers returning from service were coming home unceremoniously. He admitted that MJ was an influential entertainer but argued that his fame (or infamy) made him a poor rallying point for empathy. The veteran decried the inordinate amount of attention being paid to an entertainer whose last years were marked by scandal, bizarre behavior, and ghoulish self-mutilation.
At first I agreed completely with the veteran. Having grown weary of the post MJ death spectacle, I felt entirely too much time was being wasted on another celebrity ‘tragedy’. As cold as it may seem, the veteran’s blog post forced me to compare the self-destruction of yet another “poor” privileged celebrity to the great tragedy of those who have lost their lives in service of a cause larger than themselves. Working with veterans on a daily basis has made me more aware of the sacrifices made by the men and women of our armed forces. As great of an entertainer as he was, Michael Jackson’s fame, wealth and phenomenal career were made possible because of these sacrifices. While military service is an exercise rooted in service and selflessness, celebrity, by contrast, is a concept rooted in (at least some form of) self indulgence, or at worst, narcissism. I found it difficult to sustain even a casual empathy for someone so blessed by talent, resources and opportunity. I felt that, if we are to lionize an individual, it should be based on merit, social awareness and advocacy, not albums sales or net worth. Compared to celebrities like MJ, the sacrifice made by veterans is largely complete and selfless.
None of this means however, that I wholly endorse one viewpoint over the other. To view our sense of empathy as a “zero-sum” concept implies that American society has a limited amount of emotional bandwidth to expend on its citizens. Yet, for all of the United States perceived deficiencies, one of the most fundamental aspects of our national character is our generosity of spirit and our limitless capacity to care. While more cynical minds may define us by our shortcomings, reasonable minds define our national character by our virtues. These include qualities like our dynamism and resiliency, and our universal commitment to progress and fair play.
But as I wax philosophical on this particular topic, I find myself focused on an especially relevant virtue, one that is truly part of the enduring legacy established by the Founding Fathers. I am reminded of those immortal lines of Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus”, that which is inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty and speaks to this very quality:
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
I believe these lines represent our nation’s character best of all. Throughout our history, our nation’s mission has been to “widen the circle of freedom, to deepen the meaning of freedom, and to strengthen the bonds of community.” Underpinning this mission is the idea that the United States has room for all those who dare to dream, regardless of race or creed, and commit themselves to work tirelessly in service of that dream.
When I view Michael Jackson through the prism of these ideals, a more complex character emerges. Michael Jackson’s early childhood was marked by crushing poverty, tough times, and crippling domestic abuse. He was shy and subdued, and yet he possessed wild, florid dreams of stardom. As a toddler, he would spend hours channeling the music and dance essence of James Brown and Jackie Wilson. At age 6, when his astonishing talent was revealed to his family, (tough critics with respectable musical chops of their own) it was clear that Michael would not only join the family band, but lead them. Michael was not only a tireless worker but became an incredible musical innovator, evolving pop music in new directions with critical acclaim. Within 3 years the Jackson’s were on the Ed Sullivan show, augmenting a fervor that rivaled Beatle mania. Within 15 years Michael Jackson was far and away the richest, most famous entertainer in human history, along the way racking up truckloads of Grammys, and a string of timeless hit records, including the #1 highest selling album of all time “Thriller” with an unbelievable 110 Million copies sold- more than 2 times the albums sales of the #2 record.
While we shouldn’t excuse Michael’s self-alienating behavior in later years, it would be wrong to dismiss his passing as unworthy of sustained empathy. I might say to the veteran who wrote the blog post, simply this. Michael Jackson’s story is the embodiment of the American Dream. We may disagree on the degree to which we should regard his life, but I’d hope we could agree on the fact that Michael Jackson made more of the opportunity that our veterans have fought and died for than most. He was an example of someone who made it. His story validates the promise of those words inscribed on Ellis Island. It is for these reasons that I hope history judges Michael Jackson’s as a man, deeply flawed, but unquestionably American.