Since I spent several hours yesterday writing totally insensitive tweets about Michael Jackson’s death (like this one), I thought it would be a good idea if I spent five minutes not speaking ill of the dead.
I “liked” Michael Jackson when I was a little kid. I put “liked” in quotation marks because in the early 80s, saying you liked Michael Jackson was equivalent to saying you liked food and water. It wasn’t an expression of taste so much as an admission of being alive.
One Christmas, I received my first non-kiddie albums ever: Thriller, Off the Wall, and a Jackson 5 greatest hits collection. This last one contained several infuriating “medley” tracks that compressed four or five classic tunes into one ungodly super-mix, thus introducing me to the effed-up world of endless album repackaging. This might have also been the Christmas when I got both Atari and the Castle Grayskull playset, thus making it The Greatest Christmas Ever.
It’s hard to comprehend now just how big Michael Jackson was back then. And there probably will never be anyone that huge again, because the media has grown so enormous and ghettoized. Michael Jackson conquered pretty much Everything in the 80s, but nowadays there’s a lot more Everything to conquer, and all of it is so compartmentalized. During the height of his fame, there was one music-related channel. Now there’s dozens, and the one that made him famous spread itself so thin with reality nonsense and game shows that it doesn’t even feature music anymore.
When I heard Michael Jackson died, I felt a vague sadness, if for no other reason than it made me feel horribly old. But I also felt something else that I couldn’t really articulate, until The Wife said it for me: “I’m kinda glad he’s dead.”
She didn’t mean it like “good riddance!” She meant that this was possibly the best thing that could have happened to him. Because let’s face it: Was anything good going to ever happen to Michael Jackson ever again?
He’d become a walking punchline long ago, so much so that Neverland Ranch Sleepover jokes became the touchstone of cheap hack comics (as Tom Scharpling and Drew Magary tweeted separately, Jay Leno just lost a huge amount of material for his new show). Once joking about you has become cliche, you really only have one choice: Go along with the gag. Poke fun at yourself. You might as well, because no one will ever take you seriously ever again. This is called The William Shatner Principle (or the Gary Coleman Corollary, if you prefer).
The problem with Michael Jackson is, he wasn’t a joke because he was a bad actor or because he pissed away all his money. He was a joke because he was a suspected pedophile. What could he do? Guest-host Saturday Night Live and play Father O’Hallihan, the Boy-Touching Priest? Appear in a fake viral video for NAMBLA? Get a sitcom role as the elementary school principal with the wandering eye? That would’ve been horrifying.
Everyone loves a comeback story. America is the birthplace of the comeback story. We love to tear down heroes just so they can rise again and make us feel warm and fuzzy. But you don’t come back from something that awful. You just don’t. Even if Michael Jackson was somehow “cured”. Even if it was proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that he never molested any child ever, how could that stain ever go away? How could you ever feel good about him ever again?
As horrible as Michael Jackson’s alleged crimes might be, the man never stood a chance. The poor guy was doomed the minute his crazy father forced his brood into show business. He had to sing insanely passionate love songs at age eight. Even the kids on Toddlers and Tiaras aren’t destined to be warped the way he was.
Listen to this Jackson 5 cover of Stevie Wonder’s “I Don’t Know Why I Love You”. It’s great and creeptacular all at the same time. The kid singing this song is throwing his whole heart and soul into it–but what kind of heart and soul do you have when you’re ten years old? How did he have any idea of the heartbreak and longing contained in this song when he sang it?
Of course someone who grew up like this would regress into a twisted, Peter Pan-esque perpetual childhood full of llamas and caroussels and Elephant Man bones. As nuts as he was, we’re probably all lucky he didn’t grab a sniper rifle, climb a bell tower, and start picking people off (while moonwalking).
The way it ended for Michael Jackson is the only good way it could have ended. He dies young. We remember that he had some great songs. We forget the bad stuff for a while. Hopefully, he’s at peace now, free of whatever demons plagued him in life.
Plus, a million lousy standups have to retire their lazy, unfunny, outdated material. All in all, a win-win proposition for the human race.
Oh, and Off the Wall was the best Michael Jackson album. I will not debate this.