With the mask finally removed, her tearful goodbye humanized him in the eyes of millions of adoring fans and even skeptical detractors across the globe. Paris Jackson was the poignant conclusion to her father Michael’s celebrated memorial service. At the same time, her few words served as a painful reminder of the conflicted legacy that, as some proclaim, the greatest entertainer of all time leaves behind in the wake of his sudden, tragic and mysterious death. In Michael Jackson’s passing, this international icon casts as many if not more unanswered questions about the out of the ordinary life he led behind the curtain of his private stage.
Intense speculation over the star’s actual cause of death has ranged from an accidental overdose to explosive allegations from some family members of foul play and even murder. In the later stages of his life, Jackson was caught in a downward spiral of prescription drug abuse fostered through a tangled web of star-struck enablers and unscrupulous members of the medical establishment. As in his life, Michael Jackson was engulfed by complex legal and ethical dilemmas even at the precise moment of his death. Questions concerning the custody of Jackson’s three children, whether those children are connected to him biologically, control over and division of his complex estate, burial procedures and a final resting place for the star’s remains, use of Los Angeles public funding for a celebrity laden memorial service at the Staples Center and countless more controversial issues moved in swiftly like an ominous and heavy fog in the days and weeks following June 25th.
Upon his death, the Pandora’s box that is Michael Jackson’s secretive but highly scrutinized life burst open once again and the media as well as the public’s insatiable appetite for all of the juicy details immediately became palpable. The daily headlines read like vivid medical records. ‘Michael Jackson’s Autopsy Photo,’ ‘Michael Jackson’s Hair on Fire,’ ‘Michael Jackson’s Leg Wounds and Needle Marks,’ and ‘Michael Jackson was Sterile’ are just a few. Only the most imaginative fiction writer could create a story with such high drama and sordid twists and turns. Even with all of its tabloid entertainment value, it is a monumental disservice to Michael Jackson’s memory that a thoughtful analysis of his significant cultural contributions, particularly in the realm of human rights and social justice, are being obscured in the process of examining his death and now his corpse.
Through his prolific body of work, advocacy initiatives and multi-million dollar charity efforts, Michael Jackson raised international awareness and support for some of the most complex and timeless issues confronting the human condition. AIDS, cancer, famine, homelessness, gang violence, racism, totalitarianism, environmental degradation, child abuse, violations of animal rights, restrictions on freedom of speech and other infringements upon basic civil liberties are just some of the difficult subjects Jackson tackled by leveraging the power of his celebrity. Michael Jackson’s intuitive understanding of the problems besetting the human ecological system was uncanny and uncharacteristic for any entertainer close to his magnitude.
Many have been so dazzled by Jackson’s masterful showmanship and the consistent controversy surrounding his life and death that it would be easy not to recognize the overarching social and political themes embodied in his music, videos and public interviews. The intense emotional pull, messages and raw feelings that reverberate through the lyrics and sometimes disturbing video imagery of songs such as “They Don’t Care About Us,” “Heal the World,” “Earth Song,” and “Man in the Mirror” are gut-wrenching. A deeper analysis of Michael Jackson’s work reveals an individual with a burning concern for improving the lives of the disadvantaged and persecuted around the world. The passion and verve with which Jackson digs his hands into the soil and grasps the trees in his video for “Earth Song,” an operatic piece where he addresses environment and animal welfare, is a reflection of a leader of humanity who cares deeply about the issues he is challenging.
Global events in the weeks surrounding Jackson’s death alone directly mirror the complex problems for which he attempted to raise international awareness. In Iran and before the world’s eyes, civilian demonstrations were squashed and innocent victims like the young Neda Agha-Soltan brutally murdered by instruments of a totalitarian state. In Washington, D.C., a white supremacist motivated by pure hate attempted a killing spree at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, murdering an African American security guard in his rampage. In North Korea, U.S. journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee were unjustly sentenced to twelve years of hard labor to merely serve as international bargaining chips for an evil dictator. Michael Jackson spoke out loudly against these forms of racism and repression and attempted to ignite our passion to prevent the continuance of such abuse, neglect and discrimination. How are we now missing this message when it is even more crucial for it to be absorbed into the public mind? Not only do Michael Jackson’s cries of awakening continue to be ignored but his reputation continues to be smeared.
With the current fixation on the gruesome details surrounding Jackson’s physical demise, we have lost focus on the social relevance of Michael Jackson in our cultural timeline. Jackson’s symbol has the power to force what might be a difficult and uncomfortable period of public self-reflection. What progress has been made on the global humanitarian and civil rights issues that Jackson brought to light for the masses? What realistically still needs to be accomplished in each of these realms to actually make future progress? These are the crucial questions that need to be contemplated in the context of Michael Jackson’s death.
Many may ask why this controversial figure, a man who has been the subject of intense criticism and public backlash, should be given such gravity in framing public discourse over the day’s most important topics. Sometimes it takes one person, not just a political or spiritual leader, who stands out symbolically from the rest of society, to make that society reflect on the principles that it follows and the values it embraces. Jackson, throughout his life and in his death, has been ridiculed and revered, vilified and vaunted. In many respects, his story represents the highest possible highs and the lowest possible lows that life can present to a human being. Michael Jackson’s tremendous talent, success, wealth and public adoration were at odds with his extreme loneliness, fear, addiction and destruction of reputation by public opinion. In the end though, Michael Jackson was much more than an entertainer. His contributions to the entertainment field are no doubt profound. However, it is his broad cultural impact that truly transcends economic, social, political, racial, religious and generational barriers. Jackson rose from being simply a magical performer into becoming a humanitarian of historic import. He was a modern day messenger, a visionary storyteller who raised the level of consciousness for citizens across national boundaries. This level of contribution is what the social contract demands of those who are blessed with natural gifts, power and wealth. Shouldn’t we then embrace and support people who are destined for this life mission instead of deriding them? As history progresses and Jackson’s symbol and work are analyzed in conjunction with the unfolding of human events, the important cultural relevance of his persona will be uncovered. Like a piece of classic Greek literature that embodies timeless themes of human striving and suffering, Michael Jackson’s canon and celebrity will come to hold a similar place in the modern day cultural pantheon. Why then was it necessary to shoot the messenger?
Martin Bashir’s highly controversial 2003 TV documentary, ‘Living with Michael Jackson’ is just one of the many examples of the ways in which Jackson was unfairly portrayed in the media. The documentary was a PR nightmare for the star. Bashir’s video interviews and commentary were cleverly edited as to purposely paint Jackson as a megalomaniac child molester. The film focused, in a highly negative manner, on the abuse Jackson suffered as a child at the hands of his father, the rumors behind his drastic physical transformation, his intense friendships with young boys, the nature of his past romantic relationships and questions concerning the genetic lineage of his children, among other sensitive topics. Bashir conveniently cut out footage that presented a countervailing impression of Jackson. Bashir’s documentary and Michael Jackson’s subsequent rebuttal, in the form of a TV special hosted by Maury Povich, provide a candid, never before seen glimpse into what made this man tick. In many respects, Michael Jackson was a lonely soul who found the greatest comfort isolated behind the gates of his Neverland ranch and in the company of animals, children, carnival rides and opulent possessions. In the last years of his life, Jackson became reclusive to the point that he was unable to function even within celebrity society due to the immensity of his fame and the parasitic attention drawn by even the briefest public appearance. Examining these interviews, it becomes clear that Michael Jackson is one of the most misunderstood figures in modern day popular culture.
The incessant media backlash against Michael Jackson throughout his career and now in his death is driven by the fact that Jackson, as a symbolic figure, forces us to look in the mirror and face the difficult and sometimes intractable problems of our society and in ourselves that we may not want to acknowledge. How dare he? Jackson brilliantly shines light on civilization’s accomplishments and failures in their most extreme forms. To be repulsed by the drastic transformation of his face was to simultaneously recognize the excessiveness of a beauty obsessed culture that allows money to change even the most fundamental components of our DNA. When looking and commenting on his mask, weren’t we also secretly acknowledging both the literal and figurative masks that we sometimes hide behind? Ironically, Michael Jackson’s physical changes led him to be branded as an “oddity” or “freak” by a media culture that promotes physical perfection through any means necessary. As Jackson proclaimed during his interviews with Bashir, “Plastic surgery was not invented for Michael Jackson!”
The child molestation charges brought against Jackson first in 1993 and again in 2005, for which he was skewered and roasted by the media and public, were baseless extortion attempts fueled by the petty greed and jealousy of his accusers. Despite settling the 1993 case and being acquitted of the 2005 charges, Michael Jackson’s commercial appeal and public image were severely damaged by the allegations. The child molestation charges against Jackson represented a modern day witch hunt in its most base form. Unfortunately for Jackson, the hunt was not localized to Salem but played out globally through the aid of modern media technology. The molestation charges were fueled by likely feelings of inadequacy in the parents of the alleged child victims who were so enamored by Jackson. Perhaps these parents did not believe that they could compete with the love and material fantasy that Michael Jackson provided to their children which caused them to lash out in desperation. Jealousy combined with greed is highly combustible. The media’s depiction of Michael Jackson as a plastic surgery obsessed eccentric made him an easy target and an unsympathetic victim. It just wasn’t believable that someone that acted and looked like him could be kind, sensitive, compassionate and loving. What was the motivation behind it all? What was wrong with him? There had to be something askew. What if Michael Jackson’s motivation was simply to give hope to those less fortunate? Was all of this then just the senseless destruction of a human being to satisfy our insecurities and quell our fears of the unknown and misunderstood.
As we reflect upon Michael Jackson’s life and now death, it is difficult not to feel sad for the man and view him in a tragic light. With all of his power, wealth and fame, he now lies before us like a bird crushed after being pelted repeatedly by outsized stones. Dejected, Jackson continued to turn inward, fearful of what the world he cared so deeply about changing for the better was throwing at him. The drugs just served as an opiate to the pain of an artist and humanitarian that was overburdened by a mission that he didn’t believe he accomplished. Addicted, it was the greed of those surrounding Michael Jackson who continued to indulge his desires out of self-preservation. The numbness of the painkillers relieved the ache caused by knowing that despite what he sought to give and change in the society around him, the burden of his creations and the scathing critique it engendered had become too overwhelming for one person to sustain. Michael Jackson was a modern Sisyphus, the loin clothed man condemned to repeatedly pushing a rock up a mountain only to see it roll back down. Sadly though, our Sisyphus collapsed under the weight of his struggle.
Michael Jackson was inflated to the position of a pop deity, a mythical figure, only to be crucified and stoned by the media gods who created his success. His bold eccentricities lied outside of the norm of standard, socially acceptable behavior but were they necessarily illegal or wrong? No. Most of Michael Jackson’s actions were unconventional yet, at the same time, wasn’t the grandeur of his celebrity and global status beyond anything that modern day culture has ever witnessed? His grandeur, his eccentricity, each influenced and exaggerated the other.
It is undeniable that Michael Jackson’s immense celebrity and wealth allowed him to remove himself from mainstream society and observe the world from a privileged vantage point. Sometimes though, it takes that fortunate but isolated position to be able to make the least polluted social observations and ultimately produce the most effective societal commentary through art. Throughout history, the work and lives of multiple artists have been ridiculed and scorned by the public during their heyday, only to be placed posthumously into the canon of the Greats. It is without doubt that Michael Jackson will, in due course, garner this same level of critical acclaim as an artist and most importantly, as a humanitarian.
Matt Semino is a New York attorney and legal commentator. He is a graduate of Columbia Law School , Cornell University and is a Fulbright Scholar.
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Contact Matt Semino at Matt@MattSemino.com