Death in the Afternoon
“Great talent deserves great license.” Dan Akroyd upon the death of John Belushi
Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, avoided the slow decay yesterday by means still to be completely determined, and , if I am any judge of the endless capacity of the public to wish to believe in conspiracies, never to be completely resolved. Jackson now joins the pop martyrs of the last fifty years, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana, John and Robert Kennedy, Elvis, John Lennon, M.L. King and many other lesser figures whose bodies died before the name.
It is hard to believe, but Jackson was close to being a contemporary of mine. Only six years younger, and a pop star when I was in high school listening to the radio. But when you are 18, 12 seems impossibly young, and Jackson always appealed to the generations after me. In the early 1980s his star shown as bright as, or brighter than, any pop star in history, including Sinatra. The Thriller album sold more copies than any other album in history which was not a “greatest hits” compilation. Jackson was the first of the post-rock “entertainers”. He harkened back to a different era when people like Astaire and Kelly and Garland and Sammy Davis, Jr. did not just come out and sing. They put on a show, with dancing being the spotlight. Every pop star who has since followed Jackson has been, in some ways, an imitation of him, even Madonna. His impact upon the musical entertainment of his own time was at least as great as any other entertainer who ever lived. The fact that I don’t value his particular art as much as I do, say, Cole Porter’s (whom he loved) does not make it any less important. The smallest member of the Jackson Five was a true giant.
And yet there is that asterisk. There is the Jackson of the bizarre face changing surgeries, the strange marriages, of the dangling baby, of the chimp and the Never Land Ranch, all culminating in the criminal trial which comes so quickly to mind when his name is mentioned. The stigma of child molester, whether accurate or not, is the hardest of all stains to clean. Time will never clear that stain, but it may, at some point, lessen its glare. Time, as Auden once noted (and later recanted), is the forgiver of great talent. Kipling, Claudel, Wilde,Clinton, Arbuckle ,hell, even Napoleon. Greatness will, at last, overcome weakness, unless the greatness itself was perverted (“that Adolf Eichmann was one hell of an organizer” is not a platitude you hear much) or unless the crime is so monstrous that nothing can wipe it out (Simpson). Even then, sometimes license can be granted, Washington and Jefferson held dozens of human beings in bondage, bought them and sold them, what could be a greater sin that that ? It works the other way too. No one was more reviled than Oscar Wilde for many years after his death,, and yet societal mores now mark him as a martyr, not a criminal. Eyes can be opened.
So good night Michael, but not goodbye. I expect that I, my child, and her children will be seeing your image for the rest of our lives. A lot of people will talk about you and explain you, but no one will ever really understand you. But the music, the music we can understand.