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Wednesday, July 08, 2009

The Man Buried Behind the Music

Editorial by Mark Mayhey reporting from London, UK

Michael Jackson testifies in Santa Barbara County Superior Court, on the 13th of November, 2002 in Santa Maria, California as part of a $21 million lawsuit with his longtime promoter, that accuses the singer of backing out of two millennium concerts/Picture:AP

Michael Jackson's sudden death and recent public memorial has us all wandering in the land of retrospect.

Along with major music artists on every continent across the world, Turkish pop legend Tarkan has been paying tribute to his childhood idol Jackson in two major festivals over the weekend, declaring the great influence the American artist had on him, and that we mustn't forget Jackson's musical legacy.

A young Tarkan dancing to the beat
Tarkan dancing to the beat
With much of Jackson's music etched onto the memories of hundreds of millions of people around the world, especially those of a certain age, I can imagine Tarkan during his tumultuous childhood in Germany when his parents would argue, hiding out in the safety of his bedroom and imagining the floor to light up under his feet when he walked as in Jackson's "Billie Jean" video, or spending hours learning the "Thriller" dance. For a lot of people of Tarkan's generation, Jackson's music made them move, his spirit made them groove - but for Tarkan it would have been a coping mechanism, and after their father forcefully relocated them to Turkey in 1986, a connection to a culture he had grown up in and thought left far behind.

In my own memories of Jackson, rather than his overblown and saccharine tracks, or the peace and love lyrics that best fit his repertoire, or the irony of someone so hung up on appearance asking us to look at ourselves in the mirror, I've been thinking of a little boy with the pyrotechnic voice twisting and yelping and declaring to anybody with any sense that he was going to be something big.

The Jackson I want to remember is the one before he grew up and got lost in the self-righteous messianic nonsense that he had found himself in after fame and fortune had done its worst. Indeed, as Jackson's music and success might have become a template for Tarkan, so, too, might Jackson's spiralling decline into decadence, eccentricity and egocentricity have acted as a warning to the Turkish artist in his own career.

The Boy That Would Be King

A Michael Jackson photographed for the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in 1971. Picture: AP/Rolling StoneThe boy Jackson and the man he was to become were separated not just by years, but by the life of the man himself, which took more bizarre, and by times infamously disturbing, turns than it seemed possible for any life to contain. The man who died seemed far removed to me from the boy so many remember as a brilliant, young talent who we first saw singing and dancing with his family at his side.

And although we may eventually choose to forget the man he was in those later, disreputable years - because it was mostly the work of those adult years that marked the world with music that will endure - ironically it will be the caricature of that unforgettable boy who left it behind for us.

During his career, I have looked at Jackson's ever changing face and wondered what happened to the boy, always wanting to know what fame and his father did to him. Even as a kid of that age, the childhood was already gone, but he still seemed to know the difference between performing on stage and just being him. So, when did he begin to feel that the show never ended?

Moreover, what would have happened had his life been completely different? What if that little boy so sorely in need of love and a normal upbringing had been allowed the time to learn not to be afraid of the rough and tumble of the real world, or of the pain it sometimes brings? Could the cruellest fact of his life be that had Jackson been allowed to lead a normal childhood, we might not have been talking about him now? He would have had a full life, but the world wouldn't have had a Michael Jackson.

Now that he is gone, if Jackson's estate can clean up his image, it might well come to pass that the pop icon's death will have ended the struggle of the entertainment-consuming public once faced with trying to detach the artist from the art, to let the music stand on its own merits, free from the shackles of its tragically, spectacularly, flawed creator. Could this be why Jackson has become so popular after his sudden death, or is it that we as the media and the public, in a state of mass grief, feel partly to blame for his downfall as a sad reflection of the world's celebrity obsession?

And if the tormented Jackson was the brightest star in our culture, it begs the question what does it say about us? Is the success of Michael Jackson proof of the fact that since the end of the Second World War, humanity has been constantly lowering its standards in its desire to embrace and reward celebrity?

A Universal Obsession

With the eyes of the world firmly fixed on what was virtually a state funeral in Los Angeles on Tuesday for Jackson, other significant events have unfolded in relative obscurity.

For example, just a few days ago two super nuclear powers planned to scrap thousands of warheads, the first manned Moon landing - whose biggest unassuming hero continues to shun the limelight in an age of mass celebrity culture - is reaching its 40th anniversary, and a Vietnam War relic's life that raised questions about the relationship between war and human nature has ended. Arguably these are things that have and will affect the future of our world more than the physical demise of a cultural pop icon.

Yet, when we should look to the living, the world was fixated on the death of a talented singer on 7 July where it would be rare to find a television set or computer tuned to anything else, leaving some of us wondering when the world will return to a sense of reality.

The irony to those of us in the media is not lost. Jackson crucified, and then resurrected after a scandal-filled decline to once again become a universal phenomenon capturing the imagination of those wishing to believe that he had indeed been fighting a just cause with his music. All with a good honest buck, of course.

Thus, the tone was set at the public memorial yesterday. Michael Jackson locked in a golden coffin and put on display, with the music played in defence of who he was. The bird finally put into his glided cage to sing, though we'll never quite know why or what he's thinking.

Michael's Memorial

Yesterday, in death he was forgiven his many painfully public transgressions - including recent allegations of drug misuse - in a huge event where he was eulogised as the greatest entertainer of all time.

In a packed ceremony featuring many of the African-American elite putting to rest one of their own, who always looked like he wanted to be someone else, the extravaganza was beamed by the media to nearly a billion people worldwide. Set to go down in history as the most watched memorial service ever, it's not bad for a man who had once said he wanted his funeral to be the best show on Earth.

And very cleverly - or maybe just instinctively - those behind the memorial chose to celebrate the man and father, rather than his music, as that is going to be a sure fire thing anyway. As a result, the memorial became a fitting family tribute, dignified and spiritual, with none of the "Whacko Jacko" about it.

For Jackson's family and the organisers of the memorial, it was a successful rehabilitation of the image that most of us through the media screen have come to know, and his most vocal critics have recently been talking about. US politician Republican Peter King, denounced Jackson this week in a YouTube video as a "pervert" and a "child molester" (Jackson was up on child abuse charges in 2003 for which he was found not guilty) and New York Times columnist Bob Herbert attacked Jackson as a symbol of impossible promises and "grotesque irresponsibility" for his actions.

Only true Jackson fans, a number that seemed to be dwindling year after year, remembered the man who conversed with presidents, kings and queens, until he shocked the world one more time. And affection remains amongst modern day rulers, with US President Barack Obama (even though he hopes for a time when the world will focus on more important matters like disarming nuclear weapons) emphasising "the great joy that he brought to a lot of people through his extraordinary gifts as an entertainer." However, Obama also mentioned his "sad personal life" - and Jackson as a tragic figure did come through in the memorial, too.

With the world watching those closest to the legend give a glimpse of Michael Jackson the man, the portrait painted was simply of a human being with a remarkable talent. Without doubt, the most profound part of the memorial - which accomplished what Jackson could not in life: humanising a man who for so long had seemed like a caricature - came from Jackson's 11-year-old daughter, Paris-Michael.

"I just wanted to say ... 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," she said before dissolving into tears and falling into the embrace of her aunt Janet.

As BBC correspondent Matthew Price observes it took an 11-year-old girl to put everything in perspective. He writes: "A little girl spoke of her love for her father, and for a brief moment even those who are not particularly fond of Michael Jackson, even those who are fed up with the wall-to-wall news coverage, couldn't help but feel heartbroken."

It was a deeply emotional moment, in which we forgot he was a man who had a chimpanzee as a companion, wore masks to cover his surgically altered face, who admitted he shared his bed with boys - though he maintained it was never sexual, as others suggested. Along with his daughter, every one who took to the podium took pains to explain not apologise for the all singing, all dancing talent to those who saw him as a talented freak. The words "sweet" and "pure" had been used rarely in the last twenty years to describe a superstar who had been derided for so long.

It was an image that deeply pained Jackson himself, and one that his sudden death at the age of fifty may now well eradicate.

The King is Dead, Long Live the King

Even the tone of the media has been reverential and regretful, as though we are guilty of Jackson's death as much as the self-destructing star himself, marked by the often mentioned allegations of whackiness, an ever-changing face, multiple lawsuits, eccentric behaviour and what seemed to be one bad career move after another in the final twenty years of his life.

However, I believe that along with his iconic images of moonwalking across the stage, sequinned glove on one hand and the entire world in the other, and enduring music for pop music history, as music commentators we should not forget the other less beautiful things he left behind in his life as a prime example of what can go wrong in the fantasy world of show business.

And although it may not be fitting - or may be too soon - to speak ill of the dead, it is never to soon to speak ill of our perverse fascination with celebrity. For make no mistake, the overwhelming obsession with the death and life of Jackson has begun.

Even with his memorial now over, we are not saying a final farewell to the continuous news coverage of the death of Jackson. It could be years before the entertainment media put this story to rest. There will be questions of autopsy, questions of who did what to Jackson and when did they do it. There will be the last will and testament, the estate, along with millions of dollars at stake. There will be the questions as to who gets it, and who gets the children.

Add to that the hype of unreleased material and new songs - the big money making machine ready to be unleashed by the Jackson estate - leading to icon status, pop culture sainthood and an immense renaissance of his music. It is not too hard to assume this will be a continuing cultural impact well into the next decade, despite accusations that will be brushed under the thick carpet of time. Then books, TV shows, Hollywood movies about the glory days - the life, the music, the darkness around the edges will follow, paving the way in ten years for the celebrity microscope to zoom in on Jackson's children to see just whose footsteps they will walk in.

It looks like Jackson's past will become the future of celebrity magazines the world over, and the triumphant and troubled entertainment mega-machine of a dazzling performer who transcended barriers, transformed the music world and transfixed fans and non-fans alike in every corner of the planet will continue to do so for years to come.

The King is dead. Long live the King.

The views in this article are those of the author alone.
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