Wednesday, July 15, 2009

So Long, and Thanks for All the Music: A Tribute and Apology to Michael Jackson

In the hours immediately following the news of Michael Jackson's death on June 25th, I received at least 10 or 12 text messages that said things like: "When Farrah Fawcett made it to Heaven, God asked her what she wanted more than anything. She said, 'I want the children of Earth to be protected.' So God sent down for Michael Jackson" and "Because 90% of Michael Jackson's body is plastic, his family has decided to have him cremated and melted down into Legos so little boys can play with HIM for a change." I'd be a hypocrite if I said I didn't laugh the first time I read them - even more of a hypocrite if I said I didn't pass them along to anyone else. But as the weeks have passed and I've paid as much attention as I can to the various MJ tributes going on around the world, I've come to feel an honest sense of regret. Like a lot of people, I had this man all wrong.

For the record, I've never actually believed that Michael Jackson molested anyone - just like I don't believe that Mike Tyson and Kobe Bryant are rapists. And I never disliked his music. But as a country, we collectively latched on to the idea of his being a pervert - even after he was acquitted on all 14 major and minor charges on June 13th, 2005 (an event hardcore Michael Jackson fans refer to as "Vindication Day") and one of his accusers came out and admitted that he had lied. We just couldn't let it go. In a way, it reminds me of the urban legend that Mister Rogers was a Marine sniper with 17 confirmed kills before he was discharged from the military and became a children's show host. We all know it's not true, but the sheer unlikeliness of it is what makes the story worth repeating...But think for a minute about what we're doing when we make child molester jokes about Michael Jackson - a man who, in all actuality, did more to help children than most of us can even begin to imagine.

Here was a man who used his considerable fortune to build a place where terminally ill children could come and enjoy themselves. (Did you know the theater at Neverland actually had special rooms built into the walls where bed-ridden kids could have their medical needs met while enjoying the show?) When he settled out of court after being burned during the making of a Pepsi commercial, he donated the money to a hospital burn unit. He wrote "We are the World" to benefit the starving people of Ethiopia. (Laugh all you want about how cheesy it was to see celebrities singing together for a cause, but Michael fed a lot of people with that song.) You can find videos all over YouTube where he addressed various teaching and parent organizations about making things better for children in schools. Whenever he was on tour, he would visit hospitals and spend time with patients (no cameras present). Even the lyrics to "Bad" - one of his tough guy songs - include the lines "We can change the world tomorrow/This could be a better place." Put simply, he was a person doing everything he could to do the right thing: a genuine humanitarian. And this is the man we want to tear down and villainize? This is a man who deserves to have his entire life trivialized for a few cheap laughs? We should be ashamed. I guess it's true what they say: "If Jesus ever comes back, we'll just end up killing him again."

A Salute to the Diehards

Of course, not everybody turned their backs on Michael when things started heading south. In fact, one of the things I've found most interesting in the wake of his passing is my discovery of the enormous fan culture that's apparently grown up around him over the years. (I've always been fascinated by people who are big fans of something, whatever it might be. For example, I've never watched an episode of Star Trek, but I've seen Trekkies a hundred times.) As just one example, look at the date on some of the Michael Jackson tribute videos on YouTube and notice how many of them were created before he died.

Another example: this group of exuberant fans singing "D.S." outside the gates of Neverland at the end of MJ's 2005 trial (the story behind this song can be found here):

Far and away, though, the craziest piece of Michael Jackson fandom I've come across thus far is a documentary called "We Are the Children," which follows a group of diehard fans as they keep vigil outside the courthouse during his trial. Coming in second are the creepy people whose pictures appear on the sentry post mentioned in Paul Theroux's article, "My Trip to Neverland, and the Call from Michael Jackson I'll Never Forget."

My best to everyone who appreciated Michael Jackson while he was still with us.

Finding Neverland

Obviously, I can't claim to be quite the fan that these people are, but there is one part of the Michael Jackson story that I've always been extremely drawn to: the Neverland Ranch.

Like Michael Jackson, I've always been a big fan of Peter Pan (the whole "I don't wanna grow up" thing really speaks to me). And, like Michael Jackson again, I've always wanted to live on a large estate that exists as a world unto itself (a bit of trivia: Cryssie - whose nickname, going back to Peter Pan, has been "Tink" for years - and I decided we would name this estate Gemini Hills, which is where the name of my L.L.C. comes from). Xanadu from Citizen Kane. The Playboy Mansion. The Amityville House. The Winchester Mansion -- I'm obsessed with all of them. And Neverland is right there at the top of the list.

The best set of pictures I can recommend to anyone who shares this obsession can be found right here. (Just a little enticement for you to check them out: these pictures were taken in December 2007, at night, when Michael Jackson had left the country and Neverland was sitting abandoned. Creepy, sad, beautiful. Be sure to read the blog that comes with the pics.)

So Long, and Thanks for all the Music

All humanitarianism, insanely dedicated fan culture, and uber-cool estates aside, the thing that really matters now is MJ's music, which (here comes the cliche') will live on forever.

Growing up in the '90s, I was part of that Nirvana generation who believed that in order for music to be "real" it had to be completely stripped-down with no bells and whistles. But as I've gotten older and discovered artists like David Bowie, Rob Zombie, Alice Cooper, Prince, and Leonard Cohen -- artists who believe in elaborate production, persona, and theatricality -- I've abandoned that way of thinking and come to understand the virtue of being larger-than-life. Like the queen in Michael's "Remember the Time" video says: "I want to be entertained." I think Michael understood that, and I believe it's fair to say that he did one hell of a job entertaining the entire world.

Speaking of which, when Giuliano and I were in Germany last year, we noticed that a lot of punk rockers were always listening to "Thriller" whenever we would cross paths with them. I remember asking, "Is it 'punk' to listen to Michael Jackson now, or is that just what Europeans do?" Neither of us had the answer, but we sure heard a lot of MJ over there...and I'm sure we're going to be hearing a lot more of him for quite some time. His moonwalk, as this website makes perfectly clear, is eternal.

Sorry MJ. We didn't know what we had until it was gone. I hope everyone (self included) will learn to be more appreciative of what you left behind.

R.I.P. Michael Jackson
1958 - 2009


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