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The Rockologist: Afterthoughts on Michael Jackson

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So I guess now that Michael Jackson is dead and buried, it's okay to talk about this. Oh wait, he's not buried yet? Well I guess that's okay too. The bottom line is that Michael is gone and so too is an era that, like so many others that had preceded it, we will never get back.

I held off on writing down my thoughts about Michael Jackson for a specific reason. I wrote the original news story for Blogcritics, updating it from the original reports of a heart attack, to the eventual reality pretty much by the minute as it happened—which during that first hour or so was occurring by the minute.

I also knew this was going to be one of those huge events where you'd remember exactly where you were years after the fact. This wasn't Kurt Cobain or 2Pac. I also remember exactly where I was when they died too, though I doubt my parents do. This was Elvis, John Lennon, and Princess Di—big. Mom and Dad remember those.

Michael Jackson may not have had a legitimate hit record in twenty years, but his impact on a generation who came of age in the eighties was in many ways similar to that which those of us who grew up with the Beatles in the sixties felt. There's just no denying it.

So anyway, I wanted to wait until the dust died down a bit—or at least until the memorial was over—before writing about him.

Speaking of the memorial, like many of you reading this I watched most of it on television. I've read one report stating that as many as one in ten Americans did. This is an absolutely astonishing number, if true.

My thoughts on the service, to be honest, are however really mixed.

It was in a lot of ways, both beautiful and touching, as it should have been. I'd be lying if I said I didn't find myself reaching for my hanky when Brooke Shields talked about the two of them growing up together as childhood stars, or when Jermaine Jackson sang his undeniably emotional reading of Michael's favorite song, Charlie Chaplin's "Smile."

And if the part where Michael's daughter talked about her dad didn't get you the way it did me—well, maybe you oughtta' check yourself to make sure there's a pulse there.

On the other hand, there were some things about the service that bothered me a little.

For one, there is the fact that this amounted to a state funeral in a state which can scarcely afford one. Already, the state of California is appealing for donations to offset the enormous cost of security, redirecting traffic, etc.

What about all of those people who remain out of work?

Secondly—and although it should be expected in these sorts of bigger-than-life situations I guess—is the fact that even in death Michael Jackson continues to be a magnet to the self-serving sorts of people he so tragically attracted in life. The Reverend Al Sharpton, for example, cracks me up when he makes fun of himself on Saturday Night Live. He did not crack me up — or make me reach for the handkerchief — with his remarks at the Jackson memorial.

But most of all, for me at least, was the whole underlying tone of deification about the whole thing. It just didn't sit well. The thing that always bothered me most about Michael Jackson during his life wasn't so much the weird behavior, the way his appearance changed over the years, or even the charges of child abuse.

Rather, it was his at times unbelievable, over-the-top ego.

This was a guy who erected enormous, Caesar-esque statues of himself in life—and in death seeing Lionel Ritchie sing about Jesus, while watching Michael's image with arms outstretched and beams of light shining down just didn't sit well with me at all. Somewhere my Sunday School lessons as a kid kicked in pretty hard there I guess.

Jackson's contributions to modern culture are undeniable, even if very few of them were recent ones. The way he kicked down the doors which once separated music purely on the basis of race is something we all owe him a very great debt for.

But he was not a God. Not anymore than Elvis or John Lennon were—much I as love them both. So yeah, even as I was holding back some tears watching all of this, that part of the ceremony bothered me a little.

What I actually found myself mourning more than the passing of Michael Jackson himself, though, was the passing of the eighties.

In that respect, the memorial brought to mind when John Lennon died. Lennon represented everything that made me both love and essentially devote my life to music in the first place as a kid growing up with the Beatles in the sixties. When Lennon was cut down on December 8, 1980, so too was the last gasp of that perhaps misguided sense that music could change the world.

When Michael Jackson was at the peak of his popularity around the time of Thriller in 1983, though, he proved it still could be done. He just did it sort of differently than John Lennon and the Beatles did.

But there were a lot of other factors involved besides Thriller—not the least of which were the then emerging perfect storm of MTV, Hip-hop, and the whole British new wave thing.

At the time, I wasn't really listening to Micheal Jackson at all. My tastes ran more toward Echo & The Bunnymen, U2, and to a lesser extent the syntho-pop of bands like Human League and Soft Cell. But what I do remember back then was going out to clubs and dancing to Rick James and the SOS Band right alongside those aforementioned new wave bands. It was both a genre neutral and a color blind scene. Michael made that possible, and to really understand how monumental a task that was at the time—well, you had to be there.

Michael wasn't a God. And whether you are a religious person or not, the idea that he was anything more than a very gifted human being is one you'd be forgiven for being offended by. That said, however, he did more to break down the racial barriers separating music at the time than anyone else.

I'll give Prince credit for the assist. But it wasn't that long before that records were being burned in "disco sucks" rallies at baseball stadiums.

But for a brief time, he did change the world. And there hasn't been anything like it since. I'm not sure there ever will be, but I hope that one day that there is.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • http://jetsgaypride.blogspot.com/ Jet Gardner

    A good read there Glen, however everyone knows Eric Clapton is God.

    Thriller came along while record sales were in a critical slump. Jackson not only saved his own label, but by getting people back into the record shops probably save a couple or more other labels as well.

  • Ghislaine

    Good article, thank you.

    I donated money for the costs LA incurred for the security of the body and the memorial. I believe it should have been done that way.

    I do not think Michael Jackson was God…I am not sure I buy that he even though so himself. Any time I saw him spread out his arms, that signature movement…I always got a sense of vunerability. That he was wide open, exposed. His chakras opened. It was as if he were saying, take even more of me… we consumed him.

    I admit that I groaned when Rev. Al Sharpton got up at the memorial, but by the end, the good ole Rev. redeemed himself with me, if just for that day. What he said to Michael’s children, I really appreciated.

    Michael Jackson was just a human, imperfect as we all are. But he was also a great talent.

    A little part of me died when I heard that he passed. Maybe the 80’s died with him…but I think it is a little more than that. I am 50 and have been a fan for 43 years.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Thanks for the comments Jet and Ghislaine. Not much I can really add to them, except to say that he will be missed.
    -Glen

  • Kit O’Toole

    Glen, this is one of the more insightful articles I’ve read about this whole story. I completely agree that the Jackson family, Sharpton, etc. tried to rewrite MJ’s life story, essentially turning him into a saint. Berry Gordy had it right when he talked about MJ’s amazing talent, and that he made “questionable decisions” in his life (I didn’t agree on the “greatest entertainer who ever lived” comment, though). I think you put your finger on why us 80s kids are taking his death harder than others–it seems like the 80s are officially gone, or at least a part of our childhood. Terrific job!

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Wow! Thanks Kit. Coming from someone who has written a few very good articles about the subject herself, I take your compliment as high praise indeed. Thanks again!

    -Glen