I was driving my daughter to a friend's house on Thursday, and one of the radio stations was playing Thriller. She very innocently asked me if that song had a video. I smiled and tried to explain how it had a very famous and very expensive music video that was almost 20 minutes long, and how all of Michael Jackson videos, back in the day, were huge media events.
"Why did he make a 20-minute video?" she asked.
"Because he could."
It was as if Michael Jackson was constantly asking, "Why can't I?" And most of the time, we shrugged and said, "I dunno..." so he went on and did whatever ticked through his brain--no matter how glorious, no matter how weird, no matter how fantastic or seemingly awful. He did what he did in life because he could. He operated outside of many (some would say "most") confines of society, and that obliviousness allowed for the creation of some of the greatest art of our time. That same question, "Why can't I?" was used to answer for a lot of other things with which many of us we were far less comfortable.
Over the course of the coming weeks and months, we are all going to learn a lot about Michael Jackson. We will hear the details of how a young boy with an extraordinary gift made an excruciatingly difficult journey, surrounded by a lot really unsavory characters and a lot of people who dearly loved him and worried about him, but could never really get near him.
Imagine being 11 years old and being a breadwinner for your household, and we're not talking about "bread" in the sense of Bread and Water, we're talking about serious money, serious success--enough to take you and your entire family, and all kinds of other hangers-on, out of poverty and into a life they could have only dreamed of before you came along. Imagine THAT being your implied "job"--help the family, help the record company, help so-and-so, because somebody asked you to. Even the biggest human heart is still only human. While he was a seemingly bottomless well of talent and giving, he was still just a person. Forty years of intense pressure. If you think about it, it is almost surprising that he didn't die even younger. Age 50 is a testament to sheer force of will. Incredible.
I refer to the death of Michael Jackson as a culmination of an American tragedy because of all of the things you and I could take for granted as kids growing up in this country. Society dictates that Kids are Kids, and kids should be celebrated in a sense, and also that children are a great responsibility. What kind of person are you, the parent, unleashing onto society? Is this person going to be a "good" person, or are they going to do harm? Is there a balance between celebrating their childlike enjoyment and teaching them the hard lessons?
Those of us who are "balanced", with parents that put us in music classes but also insist that we get good grades and stay out of trouble, for example, end up being doctors, lawyers, etc. But even those who end up putting in the focus required to make art for a living don't have a life nearly as off-kilter as that of Michael Jackson. It was a part of the reason why his talent became so incredible. It was also the reason why, as a human being, he had hardly any idea of how to function. To measure him against any society norms is impossible. Whether he was doing amazing things or "weird" or "bad" things--I don't think he knew the difference.
It's tough right now, and we're feeling a lot of things--sadness, to the joy of being able to share what Michael Jackson offered artistically, classic White People Guilt. Frankly, I think most of us failed this man--We weren't nearly as unconditional in receiving as he was in giving. Some of us are admitting to it, and some of us are not. The good and the bad characters will reveal themselves in the coming months--I just hope that the whole story is finally told.