Muhammad Ali, Barack Obama, The Pope, Michael Jordan, Bill Clinton. This is the group of people’s whose deaths could rival or exceed Michael Jackson’s in terms of worldwide newsworthiness and cultural impact (and Jordan is very iffy). That is really it in my opinion. (And it happened a few hours after I was complaining that Farrah Fawcett’s death, though sad for her family and friends of course, did not warrant huge media attention. Jackson’s did and does. ) And notice there are no music people on the list. Sorry Justin Timberlake, Usher, Ne-Yo and any other people who they are already trying to figure out who could take the mantle. That sounds like a bad joke.
There is no “next” Michael Jackson. There are a few reasons for this:
The Cultural Gap
Michael Jackson had an incredible talent and an abusive parent willing to beat it out of him (I had parents willing to do the latter, but quickly persuaded them against hitting me a lot with my “I don’t have much talent” defense). Acrucible this toxic, but which generates such prodigious, one-of-a-kind genius could never occur in today’s over-exposed culture, where every other as-hole can actually become a star. He’d either be scooped up by a reality show or taken away from his parents (unlikely if he’s famous since we revel in the exploitation of children every day on shows like Jon and Kate plus 8). So there’s no sense talking about a “next” MJ because it is not really possible given our cultural landscape of low standards and quick fix need for new celebs.
The Innovation Gap
There is nobody with his talent for innovation in the music business. His closest musical counterpart is Madonna and she’s not really close. Today there is more imitation than anything else. Not to draw a comparison, but that is one of the reasons Adam Lambert was so good on American Idol – he seemed to be somewhat original, but still he lived in the shadow of men like Steven Tyler and Freddie Mercury. The best analogy I can come up with is sports related. The shadow Michael Jordan cast on basketball is so great that players like Kobe and LeBron are trying to be free of it today and cast their own legacy. Now imagine Michael Jordan were put in a time machine and played in the 1960s instead of the 1980s and 90s. Now imagine how much more incredible and awe-inspiring he would have been if he was in that era. That is what Michael Jackson did for music. And his breaking of major racial barriers goes without saying.
The Class Gap
As ironic as it may sound Michael Jackson is lucky to have lived until 50 with the media pressure and voyeuristic celebrity hunting that now goes on. He was fortunate enough to be a fully grown man by the time people were really going psycho for him. Nowadays with this exponentially growing blood lust we have for celebrities wouldn’t he be more likely to suffer a fate like Britney Spears? Breaking down right before or after Thriller, thus denying the public of several years of quality music afterwards? I even like You Rock My World, which he released 19 years after Thriller.
The child molestation charges and odd behavior of Michael Jackson will forever be linked to his legacy. I have a friend who believes child molesters should be castrated. I am one of those people that hopes that Michael was just strange and never did anything sexual to the children, but that feels unlikely. But I look at a guy who was abused by his father, and lived a public life for 40 years that no one besides Obama over the last 2 years can even relate to I think. I feel bad for him. People feel bad for victims of abuse when it occurs, but when they turn into monsters themselves, no one cares anymore. This is not a defense for his actions, if he did abuse children, but just maybe a moment of compassion is warranted, even if you do find him despicable. When you look at pictures of this cute talented kid and then at the recluse alien he became you have to know this was a deeply troubled person not in full control of what he became – his family exploited him and society smothered him.
So I am happy to own a bunch of Michael Jackson records and in a show of class I only told one Michael Jackson joke (it was the entertainment elephant in the room) last night (at one of the most difficult shows of my career – nothing compared to the massacre at Medgar Evers College a few years ago, but bad):
With Ray Charles, James Brown and Michael Jackson dead I’d be scared sh-tless if I was Stevie Wonder. If diabetes doesn’t get his chubby ass, then apparently the ghost from Final Destination will.
I will write some funnier stuff on Sunday or Monday about my Florida trip (let’s hope the worst is behind me), but I wanted to write something about the biggest entertainer in the world. And at least “kids these days” can see that there was something just a tad bigger than The Jonas Brothers and Lady Gaga. After all, even I had a Michael Jackson figure – I believe it was the Billie Jean one (modeled on the 1983 Motown Special). Music didn’t just lose a giant. It lost THE giant.