I don't mean to sound like somebody's craggy old grandpa, incessantly whining about how "it was better in our day", but I couldn't help thinking about the degree to which Jackson in life and death personified the utter shallowness of the culture we now endure.
And I certainly don't mean to play the game of My Dead Rock Star Is Better Than Your Dead Rock Star, but I also couldn't help being thrown back upon my memories and grief at the loss thirty years ago of a cultural figure who really did matter, John Lennon.
The two individuals, their contributions and contexts, our reactions to them, and even their deaths, say everything about America then and now.
Despite being twenty years past his prime at the moment of his death, Michael Jackson personified that lack of seriousness that has become to this society what water is to fish. As an entertainer and that is the operative term he struck me as a profound regression to an era whose then apparent demise I surely did not lament. Like, say, Sammy Davis Jr., Jackson could sing and dance, and was a black man successful at penetrating the white man's world. But like the entire milieu from which Davis emanated, Jackson's work (as opposed to art) was careful to demand little from its customers again, this being the operative term. (Not for nothing was the song-writing machine that penned the Jackson Five's early hits known as "The Corporation".)
Hence the silliness that has been attendant to his death, and in particular the Academy Awards-like public ceremony featuring Mariah Carey and all the usual sultans of smarm. It would be most unpleasant to admit to ourselves that one of our greatest cultural icons lacked depth. That could only mean, ergo, that the fellow in the mirror is the proud owner of a substantial and uncomfortable absence of there there. And so we desperately try to append qualities to Michael Jackson in death that he never possessed in life, the better to explain away our own vacuousness.
And what that was more than anything, it seems to me, was a boy locked forever in the body of a man. I certainly don't begrudge anyone that, if that's how they choose to live their lives (sans the penchant for pedophilia, of course, or the use of one's own child as a daredevil photo-op prop). What I wonder about is what it says about us that we elevate such an individual to the highest ranks of those we adore as a society.
Yes, I know Michael Jackson gave money to charities. And that he was honored by Ronald and Nancy Reagan for his work in fighting drug addiction. Gosh, I feel better already.
In so many ways, Jackson like his contemporary, Madonna represented the emptying of content from the great flowering of popular culture that preceded him. Once the substance had been entirely sucked out, all that was left was the bogus symbolism of anti-establishmentarianism and the hollow tropes of faux danger and commercialized dissent.
When John Carlos and Tommy Smith held up their single gloved hands at the Olympics in 1968, it took guts, you knew what they were saying, and it was in your face. By the time Michael Jackson did it fifteen years later the glove was now covered with sequins, it was part of a dance costume, and what exactly did it mean...? Wrong question, sucka. Meaning was by then already so dated a concept. It was enough that is just seemed "Bad" a real "Thriller".
Where Lennon had the stones to put his celebrity to work in dissing religion or composing a gutsy feminist screed like "Woman Is The n-word Of The World", Jackson gave us insidious fluff and candy, complete with tricky dance moves. I can't think of a single substantive contribution he made toward advancing this culture during his lifetime, a period which fairly screamed out for all the help it could get from anyone with a microphone. No, sorry, the moonwalk did not make us a better, more moral people. Even in Jackson's most obvious potential arena for political leadership the question of race his preeminent contribution seems to have been reminding people across the globe that black is not beautiful, and that those who can afford to should follow his lead in trying to become more white.
Worse still, it's pablum, and it worships the very superstitions that Lennon sought to eradicate. In Jackson's anthem to the starving children of the world, we get this line: "We can't go on pretending day by day that someone, somewhere will soon make a change", directly followed without the slightest sense of irony by this one: "We are all a part of God's great big family and the truth, you know love is all we need".
Sorry. I guess I do sound like an old geezer, after all, romanticizing how it was so much better back in my day.