In German, the word 'gift' means 'poison'. This double meaning is appropriate to a consideration of the life of Michael Jackson. Jackson's gift as a musician was a lifeblood that drove him to the heights of celebrity. However that world also proved toxic to him.
Jackson's achievements as a pop artist can be appreciated even by those who were not fans of his music. As a child in the 1960s, he was a prodigious vocalist. His enormous, soulful voice helped drive family vocal group the Jackson 5 to Motown superstardom. (Continued below)
Later, as a solo artist in the 1980s, he revolutionised pop music with his inimitable, percussive vocal technique and the erratic fluidity of his trademark style of dance.
In 1984, 'Thriller' and its accompanying short film revolutionised the music video; Jackson's appreciation of visual mediums came to match his aural mastery, and the scale of his live shows came to match the scale of his immense celebrity. He was dubbed the 'King of Pop', but to many, he was more than royalty; he was a god.
But the Michael Jackson story has the hallmarks of a tragedy. For him, the burdens of being so famous, at such a young age, were compounded by physical and emotional abuse from his father. He was the epitome of the proverbial 'troubled former child star'.
He became attached to an aura of oddness. In the 1980s it was rumoured that he slept in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber to slow the effects of aging and, later, that he had purchased the remains of The Elephant Man.
Jackson's ultimate fall from public grace began in dramatically seedy fashion. In the 1990s, there were allegations of child abuse against him. True or not, the damage to his reputation was permanent. The name Michael Jackson was forever mossed with sleaze.
Gradually, tragically, Jackson's public persona became divorced from humanity. The skin condition vitiligo may have explained his ever-paler countenance, but more unsettling were the repeated bouts of plastic surgery that transformed his face into an alien mask.
His perceived freakishness was behavioural, as much as physical. The tabloids had a lot to answer for. Scandal and scuttlebutt plagued Jackson like a swarm of insects. But he made few appeals to normalcy. His extravagant lifestyle, and baffling deeds such as the stupid 2002 prank of dangling his infant son off a hotel balcony, helped to shape the eccentric self-caricature he had become.
When celebrities die, public grief is disproportionate. Possibly this is because death reasserts the humanity of one who has seemed beyond it. In Jackson's case, because he seemed to have become so far removed from his humanity, the shock of his sudden mortality is even more profound.
The tragedy is all the more significant because he has died prior to 50 scheduled, sold-out shows in London. This monstrous billing was pitched as a 'long awaited comeback'. In reality, it may have been a last grab at redemption. Jackson achieved his life's glories as a professional musician; a return to the stage might have recaptured that glory and proven once again why he was so famous to begin with.
If it was such public redemption he was after, sadly he died before he got his chance; succumbing, it would seem, to the toxic air of the inhuman world into which his gift had led him.
The Michael Jackson story is tragic for another reason. He leaves behind three children, two from his second marriage to Deborah Jeanne Rowe, and the third said to have been conceived with the assistance of artificial insemination and a surrogate mother. One can only hope that his tragedy does not become theirs.
Tim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier-Mail and The Big Issue.
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26 June 2009
Really well written Tim. Maybe you could do a separate one for Farah Fawcett. She fought her illness for a long time and has been forgotten in the outpouring of grief for Michael Jackson.
26 June 2009
Tim I really liked your article, especially the stuff about grief for celebs being disproportionate because it reminds us of their humanity. All day I kept thinking about how many marginalised and oppressed people unnecessarily died today and every day, and how little humanity and thought we (society in general, western media etc) allocate to them.
26 June 2009
29 June 2009
One of the most endearing features of the English (as distinct from British) people is that their geniuses can be eccentric and get away with it. The Americans can't do it - think Howard Hughes, Elvis, Brando, Bette Davis, and now Michael Jackson. Why couldn't they let him alone?
One final point, a discordant one. What is Jesse Jackson doing hanging around like he wanted a bit of the celebrity? He might once have been President and if I were there I would have voted for him. Is this how Barack Obama would have finished up if he had not become President?
29 June 2009
Well written Tim. You have found the words that i have been searching for these past few days.
29 June 2009
Thanks Tim, I really enjoyed your sincere thoughts, I think he deserves this integrity.