I’m a fan of pop music that spans decades: Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Tony! Toni! Toné!, Michael Jackson.
I cringe at admitting the latter -Michael Jackson, the accused child-abuser. How can I possibly like his music when his actions were so abhorrent? Or does art transcend the artist?
It’s been ten years since the death the “King of Pop” and unlike other artist of his stature, there’s been no celebration. One grim commemoration of his life is the release of a documentary Leaving Neverland in which two men in their thirties, once boys in Jackson’s thrall, describe their childhood years in which they were abused by Jackson.
There were more than the two. In 1993, he was accused of sexually abusing the child of a family friend and the case was settled out of court. In 2005, he was tried and acquitted of further child sexual abuse allegations and several other charges.
Margo Jefferson, author of On Michael Jackson, says:
“Supporters insisted that the financial settlements were his only way to avoid exploitation by families eager for money and willing to put up with notoriety. Doubters and opponents pointed out that surely more investigation was needed: after all, there had been previous accusations, multiple rumors, and Jackson’s unabashed admission that he shared his bed with boys.”
Jackson’s frank admission that he shared his bed with boys is a testament to how much he was out of touch with the real world. It’s like he was two people, one that connected to millions through his art and another that repulsed millions through his actions. He lived on both a global stage and in a vacuum.
Maybe he was an amorphous figure such that his limits were boundless -a continuum of the outrageous and the creative. Jefferson writes:
“When I wrote my book, I was grieving for Michael Jackson the artist. The uncanny little boy; the charismatic, slightly mournful young man; the shape-shifting child-man-woman-cyborg-extraterrestrial. The cultural polygot who studied –mastered, gloried in- so many styles and traditions, one to whom no form of popular music and dance was alien”
The stain on his reputation marred his illustrious career. Jackson is one of the most significant cultural figures of the 20th century and one of the greatest entertainers. Jackson’s contributions to music, dance, and fashion, made him a global figure in popular culture for over four decades.
I still remember the launch of the video, Thriller, more of a short film than a video with an unheard-of budget. In it, Jackson references numerous horror films and performs a dance routine with a horde of the undead. The Library of Congress described it as “the most famous music video of all time”, and it has been named the greatest video of all time by various publications and readers’ polls. In 2009, it became the first music video inducted into the National Film Registry as “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant.
But the inertia of his fame ground to a halt in 2009 as he was preparing for a series of comeback concerts. Jackson died from an overdose of sedatives administered by his personal physician.
To say I’m ambivalent about Jackson is an understatement.