Wednesday, July 08, 2009


I've received six e-mails and eight Facebook messages this week from readers of this column, all with the same question:

"When are you going to write something about Michael Jackson?"

Well, my initial instinct was to say the Fifth of Never. After all, what can I say that hasn't already been said at this point by, oh I dunno, EVERY JOURNALIST IN THE FREE WORLD?

I'm a pop culture junkie. It's really the only hobby I have. And, just like you, I was stunned by the events of Thursday the 25th. First, Farrah died. And that was sad, even though I was a little too young to appreciate the red swimsuit poster in its heydey. Then around 4 p.m., I received an e-mail from a friend that said, "Are you aware Michael Jackson's likely dead?"

Now there's a surefire way to wake me up from a hazy Thursday. I immediately felt bad for my friend who sent that e-mail, as she's one of the few people whose work day is directly impacted by the deaths of celebrities. She works for a company that manages the obituary sections for a number of newspapers across the country.

Among her job duties is the review and approval of public condolences on their celebrity obituaries. There's always gonna be a handful of internet troublemakers who like to wreak as much havoc as possible in any public forum, and her job is to go through and weed out any tasteless or obscene comments before they're presented to the public.

She'd already had a long day approving Farrah's entries when the word came that Michael was in trouble. You couldn't pay me enough to do her job.

It was an amazing moment when I got home that night and logged onto Facebook. As someone obsessed by pop culture, I'm friends with a LOT of egocentric artsy-fartsy types. Folks who discuss artistic integrity at great length and automatically shun any music played on the radio as commercial drivel -- geeks, goths, snobs and nerds aplenty.

And not ONE of them had a bad thing to say about Michael Jackson that night. He was one guy with the power to cross social, racial, and global barriers with little more than a song and dance. Love him or hate him, you've got to at least respect his power.

When wee Shane first reached the age of allowance earning, one of the first things I did was rush out to Musicland and come home with Michael's "Off the Wall." It was the sound of an artist coming in to his own, and I still argue that it's the musical apex of his career.

The cultural apex, though, had only just begun. With "Thriller," Michael Jackson conquered the globe in a way that I guarantee we'll never see again in our lifetime. I didn't even really dig the music too much, but you still had to give it up for the videos and the moonwalk and the ease by which he charmed the world. I remember timing a slumber party at a friend's house for the sole purpose of being able to watch the world premiere of the "Thriller" video -- and being scared out of my socks by it.

After "Thriller" and "Bad," Michael Jackson the Artist took a slow back seat to Michael Jackson the Circus, but it was just as captivating to watch. For the most part, I forgave him for his eccentricities. I mean, the guy was a kajillionaire. If he wanted to build an amusement park in his front lawn, why not? If I was the biggest artist from here to Zxcvbnmistan, I'd probably want my own chimpanzee, too.

When you live in a celebrity bubble like that, it's probably not as crazy as it seems. The movie director Kevin Smith once told a great story about meeting The Artist Who I Think Is Now Once Again Called Prince and talking privately to one of Prince's assistants. As Smith tells it, the assistant explained that Prince, for the most part, lives in Prince-land, and sometimes can't understand why it's a problem when he wakes up at 3 a.m. with the simple request of having a camel delivered to his house.

To us, it's crazy. But when your entire life is crazy, fancying a camel ride at 3 a.m. might just be a normal Tuesday. Of course, Michael took things to the extreme. When your life becomes a non-stop Fantasyland AND you've got a serious fixation on your lost childhood, it's going to cause problems. But instead of trying to give the guy a break -- and I'm just as guilty of reading the tabloid fodder as everybody else -- we exascerbated the problem until Michael became little more than a pop culture sideshow attraction who probably needed professional help.

The court case pretty much sealed the deal. Do I think Michael Jackson was a pedophile who preyed on innocent boys? I can't say for certain, but I'd certainly be surprised if he was. I think he was an immature soul who wanted to stay young forever and didn't understand the problem with befriending little kids just like Prince didn't understand the problem with procuring a camel.

And now that Michael's gone, we're about to reap the reward for treating the guy like a circus freak all these years. His name will be center stage in tabloids for years to come, as every human being who ever managed to weasel their way into his life will be vying for their fifteen minutes of fame with tell-alls and book deals full of half-truths and speculation.

I wasn't a huge fan of Michael Jackson. But will we ever see an artist make his kind of impact ever again? Probably not, and that makes me sad. I feel bad for the guy, and I mourn his loss with the rest of the world, if for no other reason than we'll never hear the exclamation "SHA'MON!" in contemporary music ever again.

Here's hoping that the next time we're blessed with an artist of his magnitude, we don't force them down the same path.

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