Sunday, June 28, 2009

Michael Jackson: My Thoughts

For an 80's kid, Michael Jackson's death marks the end of an era and serves as the litmus test by which I assess my adulthood. He is a difficult figure to mourn, because his life---controversial by increasing degree as he aged---became, to me, symbolic: he was at once the icon of an musical age, the soundtrack of my childhood, as well as the representation of fame and decadence and weirdness lived to the extreme. In this, he continued to be the mirror to our Peter Pan culture, a culture which seems increasingly preoccupied by the superficial, the material, and one which, like a child, seems to think only about immediate gratification of any extraordinary whim.

Yet few would argue against the notion that he was an amazingly talented performer and artist, able to transform himself from reticent and withdrawn into a dynamic mover and singer onstage. The few who would offer a counterargument to this would include my husband and brother-in-law, and thank goodness for that. One of the traits I love best in my husband is his intellectual integrity and his commitment to question that which, in our culture, is "never supposed to be questioned." He constantly challenges me to evaluate my own position and he never believes in letting something slip by unanalyzed. He is daring and brave in his intelligence, and I love people who say what they think even when what they have to say is hushed by the crowd for its nonconformitist nature.

So when Bill came upon me late at night on Thursday rifling through the iTunes store, we shared a laugh when I confessed that I was doing my obligatory Michael Jackson downloads. Honestly I am not prepared to prove that Michael Jackson deserves his legendary status, but I can at least stipulate that his music affected forever countless numbers of people in my generation and beyond. And for that he gets my qualified respect and my mourning---for his role as a performer in my generation, an entertainer who shaped the childhood memories of millions around the world. Whether he was weird, or worse, in his personal life---well, that is probably not for me to figure out.

But that doesn't mean we shouldn't question his decisions or skip over them. We must not deify him in his death, or stop wondering what went awry. When we glorify celebrities to the point of being expected to say nothing negative about them, we create impossibly deified figures which can serve (if we aren't vigilant) as models for our children. Will I share his music with Kate? Yes. Why will I share it? Primarily because when I hear any song off of the Thriller and Bad albums, I am transported to the dance parties my brother and I had in Yorba Linda---hours and hours worth of them. I can picture riding my bike around our cul-de-sac and singing, "I'm bad, I'm bad, you know it, you know..." I had Michael Jackson colorforms, for Pete's sake. But it is not the man I seek to share with her; it is the musical legacy created through the man.

The problem in discussing Michael Jackson, it would appear, is either that we must have total compassion for him or we must completely villify him---both of these positions are too simplistic to encapsulate how I feel and think about him, emotionally and ethically.

Do I feel pity for his lost childhood and his systematic destruction of his physical self? Of course. But compassion is not the absence of judgment, and anyone who thinks so should probably do some heavy philosophical probing. We cannot feel compassion without some form of judgment having first occurred. If this is not clear, I will state it again: simply because we might be sorry about someone's circumstance does not give us logical grounds to excuse his circumstances completely, rationalize his behavior, or use the idea of victimhood to exonerate him from any and all possible wrongdoing. Where is the sense in such a thing? The idea that someone who is "victimized" never has to take responsibility for his decisions is the very most inimical aspect of our Peter Pan culture: the dark side. We forever allow someone to act as a child without the expectation of adult agency simply because he has been hurt?

Undeniably, there are serious questions about Jackson's parenting. From the dangling baby episode, to the obsessive naming choices, to the uncertain parentage, to the blankets over their heads, to the fact that he left his estate and his children in deep financial debt---I mean, really, how can anyone not have concerns about that? Therefore, the appropriate response (in my close circles, anyway) when someone makes a sarcastic joke that, "At least he left them Bubbles and the bones from the Elephant Man" is not something along the lines of calling for compassion for the children. First of all, anyone following the logic of such a joke would of course realize that the joke is making a cultural statement about Jackson, the iconic figure, and not the children. Obviously the joke is aimed at unveiling deeper concerns about shaky parenting and the fact that so many of the mourners are ready to skip right over anything bad in the search for idolatry (when we don't have real idols, we make them out of people who are not worthy). I am not a hater on Michael Jackson, but I think that we cannot rush to glorify someone without thinking about why and whether or not they deserve it. Of course I feel compassion for his children---but I don't feel compassion toward his behaviors which are likely to have messed them up, frankly. He and the situation in which his children find themselves don't get a free pass just because it isn't cool right now to question it. I don't work that way. Nobody should, if we want to preserve our intellectual integrity. Parenting is serious business. We as parents all make errors, but not all of us choose to set up our children to lead bizarre lives.

I am sure this whole statement---uh-oh, I am not falling on my knees over Michael Jackson---is sure to stir up negative comments, so bring it on. But remember, I already established that I am not a hater...I genuinely regret his loss, acknowledge that he is iconic to many, appreciate his role in my own childhood. But things that are "forbidden" to be said are the things that need to be said the most. If anything, what I dislike most right now is not Michael Jackson's personal decisions, but the culture of celebrity that his death puts in sharp relief. Yes, I felt twinges of sadness over the last two days, but not to the point where I forget myself. If we continue to suspend our judgment in the face of celebrity and to take actions because celebrities endorse them, then our culture will continue to decline. The only way to safeguard against this is to make intelligent arguments to support our opinions---wherever they may fall regarding this particular man.

I see nothing wrong with celebrating his music or his contributions to the music industry (Bill and Chet are probably wincing right now) or his contributions to dance, but we should not forget ourselves or our right to question while we do so.

Just keeping it real...