Michael Jackson’s sad exit

A huge talent, a racial pioneer and a very sad, strange man gets a surreal celebrity send-off. Why did I watch?

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I wrote about being surprised by my sadness when Michael Jackson died June 25 (in fact, I interrupted my vacation to write about Jackson, and not Mark Sanford; go figure.) I was the same age as Jackson, so I can speak with authority about the way he crossed over and immediately integrated AM radio, and the record collections of my white friends, way back then. So while the breathless Jackson media overkill turned me off the story, I couldn’t not watch the memorial Tuesday.

I sympathize with people who are struggling to explain why Jackson’s death is a big cultural deal, in the face of people saying, Enough! — although I ultimately came down on the side of Enough! He was an enormous talent who was also a civil rights pioneer, no matter how much surgery he had to reshape his once-lovely black face. He changed music and he changed the world. His epic personal troubles were huge news when he was alive; why would his shocking death be different? Still, a lot of people got fed up with the 24/7 mythologizing, and Jackson’s contradictions were part of the problem. You can’t just make one strong case about his cultural, racial or political importance. Yes, he attended BET awards and Motown anniversaries and stayed a part of the black community, while clearly struggling with his own self-image as an African-American man; yes, he was a singular eccentric talent who somehow made himself palatable to an unprecedented mass audience (and ultimately uninteresting to serious music fans for at least the last 15 years). Yes, he apparently loved his children very much; and loved other people’s children in a way that showed, at best, very bad judgment.

So Jackson supporters have had to try, often a little too shrilly, to make the case for his global greatness, not mere celebrity. I’ve enjoyed seeing the culture critic Toure on MSNBC this past week talking MJ, but when he said before the memorial that the Jackson Five’s emergence in 1965 helped debunk Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s controversial 1965 report on the decline of the black family, well, he was reaching badly.

Was it reaching for Smokey Robinson to open with condolence letters from Diana Ross and Nelson Mandela? For Queen Latifah to read a poem from Maya Angelou? For the children of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King to compare him to their father? You be the judge. I gave up trying to find an “objective” perspective early on — it’s been clear for a while now that much of the black community embraced Jackson fiercely after his legal troubles, and even more so after his death. If he didn’t come to my mind as a civil rights hero before his death — and he probably still won’t — that doesn’t necessarily mean he wasn’t one.

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In fact it was tough to maintain any lasting perspective on the weirdly uneven memorial — moving tributes (Smokey Robinson, Magic Johnson, Brooke Shields; yes, Brooke Shields, talking about their sweet weirdo child-star bond) gave way to schlock (his backup singers and dancers for the abortive tour singing “We Are the World”). Certainly the tribute hit some wrong notes: Motown’s Berry Gordy’s eulogy was interminable, given as much to honor Gordy’s judgment as Jackson’s talent. He had the nerve to mention Jackson’s “questionable decisions,” but of course, not his own role in taking the name “Jackson 5″ away from Michael and his brothers after they rebelled against Motown rule.

I appreciated a lot of what the Rev. Al Sharpton said, but crediting him with Obama’s election is silly. And telling the Jackson children “wasn’t nothing strange about your daddy. It was strange what your daddy had to deal with,” well, that’s simply not true. You can think Jackson was treated badly — and I do — without thinking he did nothing to incite doubt and derision. The three Jackson children are going to have to deal with a lot of their poor late father’s strangeness over the course of their life. But then again, nobody tells the whole truth at a funeral.

It was impossible not to be moved when Jackson’s daughter, Paris, came to the microphone in tears, and told the crowd: “Ever since I was born, Daddy has been the best father you could ever imagine … and I just wanted to say I love him so much.” It was one of the few moments in the memorial when Jackson’s simple humanity, not just celebrity, showed through. And yet it also seemed another example of celebrity excess; did that little girl really need to be onstage at the Staples Center, crying about her father? (The CNN Breaking News alert trumpeting that quote was the day’s lowest moment by far.) And the Jackson siblings, all in sunglasses, and the brothers in matching black suits and yellow ties? At a certain point, the memorial matched Jackson’s career: It started impressively but ended in … just too much.

Maybe this was silly, but I hoped someone would touch on the suffering and sickness that led Jackson to abuse his body and abuse a staggering array of drugs. What does it take to want to literally be sedated, put under, anesthetized to escape life? I realize as I write that that was a forlorn expectation; Jackson got to the point he did because nobody around wanted to be honest about his life; why would they be honest in death? May Jackson find the peace he never found in life. And may we now return to our regularly scheduled programming. 

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