PLEASE, make it stop.
The amount of attention being paid to Michael Jackson’s demise is grotesque. First we had the endless reports and analyses of the cause of death and attempts to make the singer’s passing more scandalous than it likely was. Then came the tearful tributes from people clamouring to be associated with Jackson’s fame. And shortly after that came the media (CBC radio’s Q host Jian Ghomeshi and drive-home host Stephen Quinn, for two) discussing our collective “grief” and what it means.
Give me a frickin’ break. Yes, Michael Jackson was a talented performer. Yes, he had a major effect on the integration of black and white popular music. Yes, his tunes had mass appeal. And yes, his dancing was often electrifying. But “grief”? All these people who never actually knew this allegedly lonely and obviously loopy individual feel “grief”? Come off it.
What do we really feel? Shock, perhaps -- nobody should die at 50, whether they’re famous or obscure. Sadness, over the fact that Jackson’s kids will grow up without their father. Sympathy, because his parents and siblings show such evidence of dysfunction. Guilt, maybe, for not having bought any of his albums for eons, or for having believed the child molestation charges, of which -- after agreeing to pay his accuser $22 million -- he was found innocent.
I’ve been writing a eulogy for my mother, who died after a long illness, and a year of missing her husband. If you don’t know what genuine grief is -- which I suspect is the case for many of those admirers sobbing over Jackson’s death -- you’re lucky. Try losing someone you actually know, and love deeply, over many dark months. That’s grief. Grief is not a tap you turn on as soon as TV’s Nancy Grace takes an interest. And incidentally, the size of the teddy bear you leave on the public pile is not a true reflection of the depth of your feelings.
Elizabeth Taylor went up a few thousand points in my estimation when she decided at the last minute that she didn’t want to give the eulogy for her friend at the tribute to Jackson on Tuesday. “I cannot be part of the public hoopla,” she wrote on Twitter, admitting that she wasn’t sure she was capable of being coherent, either -- always a concern when your emotions are genuine. “I just don’t believe that Michael would want me to share my grief with millions of others. How I feel is between us. Not a public event.”
What a concept -- sincerity and privacy, linked to mourning.
Taylor, of all people, knows that there’s another word for “fans” -- “strangers.” Devotees may believe they know their idols, but they understand the star only in terms of the image he projects into the world.
The iconic actress, who knew the singer for several decades, serves as a contrast to Jackson’s admirers, especially those quoted by the Globe and Mail this past week. In one pre-tribute story, an LAX cleaner talked about how she felt after winning two passes to attend. “I started crying and thanking God when I heard I’d won,” she said.
Meanwhile, another fan claimed to have “grabbed a bottle of Moscato wine, a glass, a candle and Thriller” when she heard about Jackson’s death. She seems to have stopped short of setting her own hair on fire, but she did say, “He’s bigger than Elvis, bigger than anybody. To me, these tickets are the greatest gift I could give to my kids. To me, this is going to be bigger than 9/11.”
Yeah, I remember when 9/11 went 26-times platinum, too.
I have no doubt that Michael Jackson’s children are truly heartbroken, as well as his mother and a handful of friends. The rest of the Jackson family has always seemed both bizarre and tasteless. Brother Jermaine, for instance, named one of his eight children from numerous marriages “Jermajesty.” Sister La Toya came out publicly in 1993 saying she believed Michael was guilty of molesting children and offered “proof” for a fee of $500,000. (She later rescinded, claiming her abusive husband had forced her to make the accusation.) So it’s hard to know what this group really feels about the loss of the son and brother who brought them all such fame but also such infamy.
For a guy who seemed to have few intimates when he faced criminal charges, and felt so rejected he wound up in Dubai, Jackson sure is popular now.
Of course, I loved him when he was a sweet, gifted little dynamo. Years later, I was among the millions who were astonished by his famous moonwalk. Like everybody in the universe, I owned the album Thriller. And, like most people in the universe, my interest in him waned as he became more and more a caricature of a pop star, and even of a person.
You have to admit that you were put off, too. Before he died last week, how recently had you put on a Michael Jackson album in expectation of enlightenment, or even a catchy tune? I’ll bet it was at least 10 years ago.
Nevertheless, Berry Gordy got up at the tribute this past week and declared that Michael Jackson was not just the King of Pop (a stupidly grandiose boast in the first place) but “the greatest entertainer who ever lived.” Take that, Shakespeare, Mozart, Chaplin, Sinatra, Dylan, and Elvis! Why do people (particularly American people) feel the need to describe artists in such ludicrously hyperbolic terms? Art is not an event at the Olympic Games, where performance is timed and quantifiable. You’d think the founder of Motown Records would be aware of that.
The fact is that it’s summer, and there just isn’t much sizzle on the North American “news” front. It’s prime time for loafing. So we passively watched basketball legend Magic Johnson claim that seeing Jackson eat KFC was “the greatest moment of my life.” We observed CNN’s Anderson Cooper treating Jackson’s showbiz memorial with the same intensity he awarded a devastated New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. And we saw the increasingly toad-like Larry King sentimentally don one of Jackson’s old fedoras at the request of Miko Brando, another scion of a disturbed celebrity family.
“I was the clown,” Jackson once wrote in his song, Circus Girl. Ultimately, despite his huge talent, in death he’s become just that -- a compelling curiosity.