Jackson performs his hit “Billie Jean” in 1983
Â Right now we could all use a selective memory wipe â€” a magical eraser to remove all the misery Michael Jackson endured and caused. Just for a minute, we’d like to have pure recollections of the thrilling dancer and singer who dominated ’80s music, created the all-time best-selling album of new songs (Thriller) and seemed the very model of the cool dude with the sensitive soul. And we wouldn’t mind feeling some uncomplicated warmth for the young Jacko who, as the Cupid and Kewpie doll of the Motown brother act the Jackson Five, displayed the charisma that marked him for future and, we thought, perpetual stardom. Why can’t a pop icon’s life and legacy be as easy as ABC?Â
On the evening of his death from cardiac arrest, fans by the thousands convened at impromptu memorial sites. Unable to commemorate his passing at his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame â€” it was covered by a red carpet outside the Chinese Theatre, where a Bruno premiere was to take place â€” the pop phenom’s admirers placed notes and flowers further down Hollywood Boulevard on the star of a much less famous radio host who happened also to be named Michael Jackson. Newscasters mostly observed the rule of decorum in such matters: speak only good of the dead. As Josh Tyrangiel noted in his TIME.com obit, there was much good, much brilliance, to speak of. Hail to the King of Pop; rest in peace. (TIME reports: mourning Michael Jackson on Twitter.)
And yet, as Tyrangiel also pointed out, Jackson’s memory is complicated, compromised, tainted. In some ways his decline was familiar: the star attraction whose star fades. Once the richest of pop idols, he flirted with bankruptcy in the past decade, selling many of his assets to Sony to wipe out huge debts. For years his main income came not from his own music but from royalties from much of the Beatles’ catalog, which he owned. (He may have relinquished some of these rights in are financing deal with Sony; details were not made public.) Jackson was also forced to sell his Neverland ranch outside Santa Barbara, Calif., and auction off many of its treasures. Some antics, like dangling his infant son Prince from a balcony, tested the limits of what an eccentric celebrity could get away with.Â
Other aspects of Jackson’s fall come close to being unique. For the past two decades, he has been famous for being infamous: the sad, self-mutilating creature who may have acted on impulses he thought were paternal but were in fact predatory. Though he escaped conviction in two major allegations of child molestation â€” the first, in 1994, by paying his accuser $22 million; the second, which went to trial in 2005, through acquittal â€” the evidence he acknowledged was damning enough to a public that demands little but that their stars offer the semblance recognizable humanity.
Soon after his career went stratospheric, Jackson went extraterrestrial. With the aid of plastic surgeons who should have known better, he almost literally defaced himself. For some imaginary Madame Tussaud’s, he transformed himself into his own waxed figure, a modern Phantom of the Opera in pallor and disfigurement. A pop star has problems when his fans can’t bear to look at him.
Jackson’s life was never, ever normal. For a celebrity of his magnitude, to be seen is to be smothered, to be a star is to be a freak, to be loved is to be abused. A poignant and appalling case history that could have come straight out of Krafft-Ebing, Jackson’s childhood was marred by mistreatment. In a 1993 interview with Oprah Winfrey, he recalled his youth, when his father Joseph was making millions off his sons’ popularity. Jackson said that in puberty â€” “very sad, sad years for me” â€” his father routinely called him ugly, “and I would cry every day.” When Winfrey asked, Did your father ever beat you? Jackson tried to smile as he said ‘yes.’ Then, in an aside to his father, he added, “I’m sorry. Please don’t be mad at me.” With that wincing smile, Jackson was like a wounded orphan who has walked through fire and has booked a return trip.
In 1993, Michael’s sister LaToya, who is perhaps not the most reliable of witnesses, claimed that their mother Katherine had called Michael a “damn f—-t.” How strong is the bond, the bondage, of victim to victimizer? Strong enough that one never breaks free. Jackson dedicated his album Dangerous to “My dearest parents, Katherine and Joseph Jackson.”
Michael’s speaking and singing voice never matured; neither, it appears, did he. When Winfrey asked Jackson if he was a virgin, he smiled and said he was “a gentleman. You can call me old fashioned, if you want.” Old fashioned? Archaic. Identifying with the don’t-want-to-grow-up Peter Pan â€” a role he hoped to play in a Steven Spielberg film version of the James M. Barrie play â€” he called his ranch Neverland, populated it with an exotic menagerie and surrounded himself with young boys. They were meant to be supporting players in an improved, redeemed fantasy version of his own damaged childhood.
Yet Jackson’s profound weirdness â€” not just the glove or the seaweed hair striping his face but the blanched skin, the pained eyes, the tremulous soul â€” hinted that Peter Pan was the wrong role for him. Wasn’t Jackson really one of Peter’s Lost Boys, stranded between childhood and adolescence, loved by the public yet feeling caged and abandoned, and searching, groping for the Edenic innocence he believed was any child’s birthright? Or, to pick an image from another Disney cartoon classic, Neverland could also be Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island, where careless lads were transformed into slaves and donkeys. And this pop-star Pan could instead be the Pied Piper, the musician who lured children into a cave as their parents gasped in fright.
“I love being around them,” Jackson wrote in his 1988 autobiography, Moonwalk. “There always seem to be a bunch of kids over at the house, and they’re always welcome. They energize me â€” just being around them.” When he welcomed handicapped kids to the ranch, he felt he was their equal, and they were friends he could play with, or sing to â€” or, he must have thought, love, in the purest sense of the word. The litany of alleged misbehavior in the 2005 trial â€” making prank phone calls, sneaking drinks, scanning porn sites, even a lesson in masturbation â€” is not unfamiliar among preteens. If Jackson committed these acts, it was not predator-to-prey but peer-to-peer. Having forgiven the father who abused him, could he not forgive himself for bonding with the children who came into his Neverland bed? Could this Lost Boy even understand the difference between hugging and fondling, affection and assault, generosity and lechery?
He told Winfrey that what he most regretted not having as a kid was “slumber parties.” That’s what he arranged for his young guests, who were often wounded souls themselves. The boy who brought the complaint against Jackson that went to trial met him after undergoing chemotherapy treatments for leukemia as a 10 year old. Perhaps we should forget Peter Pan for the moment, and remember that Jackson told Winfrey of his kinship with another outsider, John Merrick, that sweet-souled, tragically deformed creature known as the Elephant Man. “I love the story,” he said. “It reminds me of me a lot . . . It made me cry because I saw myself in the story.”
Even when the charges of child abuse were new and shocking â€” when British gossip rags were dubbing him Wacko Jacko and Sicko Jacko â€” there was some sympathy for this sad creature. The public, after all, had more invested in him than they did in the boys he was accused of molesting. And now, in his early and sudden death, his mourners can see him as more sinned against than sinning. They might have used that magical memory wipe on themselves.
But as the first grieving fades, and all those people Jackson’s lawyers paid to keep quiet get other people to pay for their stories, the tabloid tattling will return. The noise should be as instructive as it is ugly. It will force Michael Jackson’s fans and foes to ask: Why must our stars fall so spectacularly and fail us so egregiously? Perhaps it’s because we want them to. Indeed, it may be the primary function of celebrities like Jackson to show us, in their early radiance, what we could dream of being â€” and in the murk of their decline, what we fear we could become.