The Memory vs the Man

It seems like everyone in the world knows Michael Jackson died, and it seems like everyone is acting like they care. I’ll be up front and say that while I was surprised by his death, I don’t feel strongly one way or the other; I wasn’t really affected by it. Yes, I have a couple Michael Jackson songs on my iPod and yes, he was a music phenomenon, but I wouldn’t consider myself a Michael Jackson fan and I don’t feel I have any emotional involvement in his death.

That’s how I would expect more people to feel, at least those of my generation. I can’t entirely understand how this death affects my parents’ generation, for whom MJ was a huge star, because in my lifetime he’s been regarded as more of a freak show. Growing up, I knew him as the guy with changed skin, and most of my memories of him are hanging babies over balconies and creepy interviews. I can appreciate Thriller, the moon walk, and the sheer number of No. 1 hits, Grammys, and records sold – but my connection to this story ends there.

Which is why it seems extremely superficial and disingenuous to me that so many proclaim to be grieving Michael Jackson’s death. Every life deserves to be honored and missed, but fake shows of grief make a mockery of someone’s real loss. Granted, those close to him are stunned and overwhelmed, and many in the music industry were greatly affected by his career, and those who grew up with his music feel this as a big loss to their era. But it stops there. Although he changed the music scene forever, in ways that are still being realized, everyone else doesn’t need to pretend to be so upset about the death of someone they likely made fun of during his life.

And that’s an interesting thing in itself – how different the general reaction to Michael Jackson in death is from the reaction to Michael Jackson in his later life. At least from my perspective, he’s been regarded as “Wacko Jacko” for the better part of the last 20 years, but now we’re trying not to think about that. Suddenly, I’m seeing pictures of MJ at his best, everyone is hailing his musical accomplishments and ability to transcend race, the entire entertainment industry is honoring him and artists who would probably have never associated with him are attending (and performing at!) his memorial. Even the ever-critical media is honoring him as a musical great. ‘Spin’ isn’t the right word, but wow, there’s been a big change here: Michael Jackson as a tragic loss of pure talent, personality and innovation – forget about the surgeries and the children.

But as fake as it seems coming from former ridiculers – real grief is a tribute, put on grief is offensive – there is something reassuring about the overwhelming desire to remember the best, honor the accomplishments, respect the family, and just let the rest go away. Maybe only in death are we able to fully appreciate Michael’s monumental impact on music, and only now are are we able to make peace with his distorted image. In fact, it’s nice to think that maybe, once the craziness is gone, it’s in our nature to just reflect on the positives, and when we die people will forget our flaws and just focus on what’s lost … at least for a while.


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