One mark of Michael Jackson’s cultural impact is the strain his death put on the Internet. Another is the number of appreciations, tributes, and responses that have been written about him in the past three days (and the range of people writing those pieces). Here’s a roundup of the best I’ve read so far.
Bill Wyman has written some of the most interesting, if less idolized, takes on Jackson. I like Wyman’s clear-eyed framing for his first reaction post to Jackson’s death, e.g. “The story from that point [after Thriller] is a bleak and unrelieved one.” Wyman gets at the ultimate truth about Jackson’s later years:
I think it’s fair to classify Kurt Cobain’s death as one brought on by medical problems, specifically the roiling interaction of depression and addiction. Jackson’s death is in this sense more purely a suicide, just as Elvis Presley’s was some three decades ago. Like Presley, Jackson at some point stepped through a door, closed it, and turned the key. What went on behind the door we’ll never know.
In another post, Wyman assesses the similarities (or differences) between Jackson’s and Elvis Presley’s lives and legacies:
Elvis Presley died at home, but no artist was farther away from himself at the time of his death; Jackson, by contrast, remained at the center of his own created world until the very end. His legacy incorporated himself and nothing else, though I suppose you could throw Usher and Justin Timberlake in there. We’re still living in the world Elvis Presley created; for all intents and purposes, Jackson’s ended yesterday.
And Wyman’s analysis of the post-death developments are must-reads: in one post, he questions reports that Jackson sold 750 million albums; another post gives a great rundown of the craziness still to come.
Slate’s Jody Rosen is far more charitable to Jackson’s legacy than Wyman is:
His influence is unmistakable in the music of today’s biggest acts, from the unabashed would-be Michaels Justin Timberlake and Usher, to pop divas like Beyoncé and Rihanna, whose singing takes in the speedy cadences of Jackson hits like “Smooth Criminal” and whose performances aim for Jackson-esque high-showbiz dazzle. Historians will look back on the last quarter-century as the period in which R&B became the defining American music, and this is Jackson’s achievement more than anyone’s. Today’s Top 40 operates on the template set by Jackson in the 1980s, when he dismantled radio and MTV’s de facto racial segregation.
Andrew Sullivan mourns a musical genius ravaged by everyone who knew him as well as the zillions who didn’t (I also read a pretty good rejoinder to the “our rapacious culture did it” idea, but can’t find the link now):
Of course, he bears responsibility for his bizarre life. But the damage done to him by his own family and then by all those motivated more by money and power than by faith and love was irreparable in the end. He died a while ago. He remained for so long a walking human shell. …
I grieve for him; but I also grieve for the culture that created and destroyed him. That culture is ours’ and it is a lethal and brutal one: with fame and celebrity as its core values, with money as its sole motive, it chewed this child up and spat him out.
Much of the writing on Jackson has struggled with how to honor his music while not forgetting the terrible things he was accused of. Here’s Ta-Nehisi Coates on “separating art from men”:
Ray Lewis may well be an accessory to a man’s murder. But when I watch him run up and down field on Sunday, it sparks something in me. Woody Allen wooed his wife’s adopted daughter, and may well be a child molester. But I think Bananas makes me laugh. Mike Tyson is, among other things, a convicted rapist. But I had not lived until I saw him demolish Trevor Berbick. And so on…
I guess I could peel these people out my life. I guess I could stop seperating art from men. Regrettably, I think, I wouldn’t be left with much art worth admiring. Sometimes awful people, do beautiful things. One doesn’t cancel the other. And mourning the loss of human life, does not excuse the sins of that life.
Sean Daly, my friend and former colleague at the St. Petersburg Times, includes a wonderful anecdote in his appreciation that moves the discussion of artistic legacy out of the realm of cultural abstraction:
I live on a street with dozens of kids, ranging from toddlers to teens. A few months ago, at a pool party, one of them brought up Michael Jackson. I had the videos and the CDs, so I brought them over. Yes, I felt a little weird about it, and I sensed unease in a few of the parents, a sense of Is this okay? But the looks on the kids’ faces stopped that fast:
They were transfixed. None of them had been born in the ’80s; only a few of them had seen any part of the ’90s. But they watched the videos — especially that awesome zombie dance — over and over. As we were walking home, my 5-year-old daughter — who up to that point had defiantly refused to listen to anything her music-critic dad liked — turned to me and whispered: “Dad, do some girls think about being married to Michael Jackson?”
Lastly, Andrew Sullivan linked to an interesting 1984 New Republic piece about Jackson by Michael Kinsley. What’s striking is that Jackson’s emotional stuntedness and mental illness clearly weren’t just post-1990 afflictions:
A sickening cover story on Jackson in the March 19 Time takes as its theme that there is something wonderful about being an incompetent human being. “Jackson’s world of fantasy is easier to dismiss with malicious gossip than understand with sympathy,” Time scolds. It quotes Steven Spielberg: “He’s like a fawn in a burning forest.” Describing Jackson “chatting and swapping gestures with E.T.,” Spielberg reflects, “I wish we could all spend some time in his world.” Jane Fonda reports on a week ostensibly spent talking with Jackson about “acting, life, everything. Africa. Issues.” Her conclusion? “His intelligence is instinctual and emotional, like a child’s. If any artist loses that childlikeness, you lose a lot of creative juice. So Michael creates around himself a world that protects his creativity.” Time notes with approval: “His friends [sic] . . . help him keep life at bay and illusion near at hand.”