28 June 2009

Poor MJ

I imagine that many people feel about Michael Jackson’s death the way I felt about John Lennon’s murder on 8 December 1980: hard to reconcile feelings of surprise—shock is more like it—mixed with sadness and an immediate, very personal longing. I never met John Lennon, but on that day in 1980, I felt as though I had lost someone very close to me.

I don’t feel that way about poor Michael.

Strictly speaking, I should be more a child of Michael Jackson’s era than of John Lennon’s. The Beatles dissolved the band around the time I was born, while Michael truly came into his own—as an independent superstar, eclipsing both of his earlier incarnations—as I entered adolescence. There was a lot more of Michael Jackson on the radio than John Lennon, and certainly the radio-killing MTV was more attracted to Michael (and various other Jacksons) than to anything as old and dated as the British Invasion.

The sequined glove era just wasn’t me, though. As much as I admired Michael Jackson on various levels, from his stick-in-your-head songs to his dancing to the brilliant theatrics of his music videos and performances, I never found Jackson as compelling as Lennon, because I never found his off-stage persona at all meaningful. Where Jackson was a performer, Lennon was an artist. Jackson always seemed to find his highest level of expression literally moving in the spotlight—or trying to duck it, and the paparazzi too. Lennon spent much of his time in the spotlight, from his performances to his bed-in antics, trying to redirect those bright lights on to the world’s problems and our responsibility to try to solve them.

It is like the difference between Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan. Jordan remains (to my mind) one of the world’s most incredible athletes; watching clips of classic Chicago Bulls games, Jordan’s maneuvers are still eye catching. However, Ali remains (to my mind) one of the world’s most incredible artists, an athlete who tried to use the bully pulpit provided by his star power to greater social and political ends. Any clip of Ali boxing is incomplete without his corresponding commentary from the beginning and the end of each match, where he was as likely to spout off about the war in Vietnam as about his own (self-granted) title as “The Greatest.” Like Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson never rose above his performances to offer us anything deeper or more meaningful.

Perhaps my definition of art, and of artists, is too narrow. I respect Keats’ construction—that a thing of beauty is a joy forever—as much as the next guy, and by that logic I should take Michael Jackson’s body of work and admire it for what it is. In a way, I do. Jackson’s legacy is assured, and his death is very sad. But it is all the more tragic because what is left behind is as much our collective memory of Jackson’s own sadness, the emptiness that was his circus show life, as our recollection of any single one of his songs.

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