The King is dead

From death photos to celebrity sound bites, the three-ring circus of mourning Michael Jackson has just begun

By Heather Havrilesky

Published June 27, 2009 12:26AM (EDT)

In this Aug. 29, 1993 file photo, pop singer Michael Jackson performs during his "Dangerous" concert in National Stadium, Singapore.
In this Aug. 29, 1993 file photo, pop singer Michael Jackson performs during his "Dangerous" concert in National Stadium, Singapore.

He was the King of Pop, as big as Elvis, one of the most influential and successful recording artists of all time, and "one of the best known people on the planet, ever," as one guest on CNN put it. Michael Jackson passed away a few hours ago but the superlatives are just starting to flow on the cable news channels. Crowds have gathered outside Jackson's house, fans are flooding the streets outside UCLA Medical Center, and an impromptu memorial has erupted in front of the Apollo Theater in New York City.

While TV producers scramble to cut together montages of Michael Jackson's life, reporters on the streets are looking for reactions from distraught fans. Most of them use the word "icon" so much, they sound disturbingly similar to the pundits in the studio.

"He was an icon. He invented the moonwalk. It's just devastating," says one woman standing outside of Jackson's mansion.

"He was a legend, an icon. I grew up watching Michael Jackson," says a man in front of the Apollo theater. But didn't we all grow up watching him? Even though it was hard not to feel disappointed in Jackson over the years, as his behavior became more and more erratic and his face became unrecognizable, it's also tough not to feel a shiver of nostalgia when footage of his sweet face and incredible voice as a kid starts running in a steady loop on every channel.

Over the past decade, Jackson's talent has taken a back seat to talk of that oxygen chamber, the chimp, the accusations of inappropriate conduct, the dangling infant, the media spectacle of a trial. What did the icon Michael Jackson mean to us, and how did the human being get so lost along the way?

Forget what regular people think. The fans on the streets are soon forsaken in favor of celebrities calling into the networks and cable channels, anxious to throw in their two cents about Jackson.

"Everything the man did was magic," remarks pop star Ne-Yo on CNN.

"I can't stop crying over the sad news," says Madonna. "My heart goes out to the three children."

"Michael Jackson's been an idol for me all my life," says Celine Dion. "It feels like when Kennedy died. It's an amazing loss." Dion, it should be noted, was not actually born yet when Kennedy was assassinated.

"Michael was a perfectionist," says Tommy Mottola, head of Sony Music, whom Michael Jackson once called a racist.

"It makes my heart sick, absolutely," Sheryl Crow tells Larry King, then mentions that she and Michael once watched Amos and Andy videos together, when she was one of his backup singers.

"I called him the Mohammed Ali of the entertainment world," says Aaron Neville. "Did you ever get to work with him?" asks Larry King.

No, Neville says. "Would you have liked to have worked with him?" King asks. Oh yeah, Neville responds. Now King is really reaching. What's next? Would you have liked to have visited him in Neverland, Aaron? Would you have enjoyed spending time with his children?

Soon, a female reporter for ET breathlessly tells King that ET online has an exclusive last photo of Jackson, taken while paramedics were attempting to revive him. Unbelievably, they flash the photo on the screen, showing the dying man with an oxygen mask over his face.

"How did you get that photograph?" says King. Is he going to upbraid her for her lack of taste? No such luck. The reporter says her producer found the photo, and King says, "That's a heck of a job of reporting!" Yes, yes. Way to use the Internet, kid.

But wait, here's a helicopter taking off. "Do we know where it's going?" asks King. "No, we don't know yet, but we definitely do know the body is on that helicopter." Next, King actually asks "American Idol" judge Randy Jackson to speculate on where the helicopter is going. (Randy has no idea.) God help us all.

But before the Lord can intervene, it's time for King (who is himself a celebrity, after all) to chime in with his own experiences with Michael Jackson. "I first interviewed him when he was 10 or 11 years old," King recalls, then walks us through every interaction he's had with Jackson over the years, along with a few times he heard someone else talking about Jackson. Most recently, King says he talked to a friend who "arranged for a plane to fly Elizabeth Taylor over to London for opening night for Michael Jacksons' 59th concert that, sadly, would never take place." A friend who arranged a plane for Elizabeth Taylor? Let's get this guy on the phone already!

Next up, Anderson Cooper, who does a good job of sounding genuinely upset when he asks, "Why did it happen? Why did his heart stop?"

Former family lawyer Brian Oxman would like to offer one possible reason why: "This is a case of abuse of medication."

Uri Geller, who was a friend of Michael Jackson's, only knows that the King of Pop was very lonely. Geller knew this because he once asked Michael, "Michael, are you lonely?" And Michael said to him, "Uri Geller, I am a very lonely man."

With so many celebrities expressing heartfelt concern and shock and personal stories about Michael, you'd think the man was never lonely at all. But Ben Brafman, Jackson's former defense attorney, says that from what he observed, Jackson rarely spoke to many people outside of his children and necessary staff. "The adults around Michael Jackson didn't interact with Michael Jackson. I never saw him in conversation with the adults around him. The only people he talked with were his children, there was a woman who helped take care of the children who he spoke with ... He was young, he was sweet, he was gentle, he was naive, and he was very sad."

Just as it's getting difficult to stomach this dizzying mix of passionate, loving celebrity tributes and depressing observations, Al Sharpton rolls out the fighting words. "A lot of people that you will hear saying a lot of great things [about him] over the next couple days, they broke Michael Jackson's heart way before it gave way today."

Fortunately, the hearts of viewers at home aren't so easily broken by celebrities, least of all celebrities calling CNN to make sure they can register their shock and distress on live, national TV. What is heartbreaking, though, is the sound of a chorus of voices outside the Apollo theater, singing aloud, an impromptu a cappella version of "Pretty Young Thing." This is the kind of tribute that Michael Jackson himself would've appreciated the most. Whether he was utterly misunderstood or deeply disturbed or something in between, Jackson had a difficult time, as most do, navigating the perils of megastardom, and withstanding the severe isolation of extreme wealth and fame. Jackson may have been treated as a freak by most celebrities, the media, and even the people who worked for him, but a planet full of young and old fans still sing his songs and watch his moves and swoon.

And whatever unsavory spectacle of public mourning unfolds before our eyes over the next few weeks, most of us will mourn Michael Jackson the way he lived his life: Privately, quietly, behind closed doors. We'll scoff at the flowers piling up, roll our eyes at the Princess Diana-style fuss, and then we'll catch a few bars of "Beat It" or "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" on a passing TV screen.

"I grew up watching Michael Jackson," we'll think. "He was a legend, an icon."

Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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