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During middle school, I used to stand at the bus stop in New Orleans with my brother, Mark, and inevitably another schoolmate would amble along with a boom box, all of us waiting together. In went Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall cassette to which we danced. It became this tradition both at the bus stop and then in the bus as we rode to school. That year and the next Michael Jackson was my escort to school and back home. And it was in returning home each afternoon that I literally feared going home, seeing my mother. My brother would often get into trouble at school on purpose to avoid coming home until almost dinner time while I usually would go home alone listening, dreaming I was anywhere but on my way to the place I least liked…all the while listening to Michael sing: “Keep On With The Force Don’t Stop…Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough ”
I was quite shocked this past Thursday, then the days following, to find myself extremely sad over Michael Jackson’s death. I am not the type of person who follows stars or even feels emotion for them. But in discussing Michael Jackson’s passing with two friends, it was in one of these discussions wherein my friend expressed “suspicion” of this man which made me feel even sadder. I am not naïve to our justice system, but I do tend to think that in general it works. Still, why all the naysayers? Why the obsession with pedophilia in Western culture this past decade? And that obsession directed specifically at Jackson? And why would rational humans (whom I consider my friends to be) jump to any conclusion about a man who was acquitted of charges because the claims were not only baseless and proven to be so, they were made by individuals who clearly took advantage of this man-boy, Jackson?
So these past days I have become that person I never thought I would be: I started inhaling everything Michael Jackson–watching interviews with him, reading court and journalistic reports, and reviewing most of his videos. And the answers to the darker questions about Michael Jackson started to emerge all on their own beginning with his quite abusive childhood, or even absence thereof. As such, I quickly came to sympathize with a man to whose music I had danced because as I was to discover because of the parallels in our childhoods. Like Michael Jackson, I too was denied my childhood as my parents chose to forego their responsibilities of parenthood and push them onto their 8 and 9 year old children. So from the age of 9, I knew no familial love, only work, obligations to the family and essentially having to keep a household running while raising two children (my younger siblings) and nursing my parent’s prescriptions drug and alcohol practices with my brother, Mark. Like Michael, I would often wish to be like other children and have friends, have time for fun, for play. So it didn’t take much for me to see how Michael Jackson, having few options after being Joe’s and Katherine’s work horse, as an adult created a world of childhood around him–specifically focusing upon his own role in fatherhood these last 12 years–as his only means of having any semblance of a private subjectivity that had been long denied him thanks to his predatory parents and later the equally ruthless media and legal structures. Certainly his Neverland ranch is a place of utmost opulence and excess. For what seemed so surreal to the rest of us only reflected the absolute paucity of personal intimacy that Jackson had always been denied, far away from the reality of his father’s insults and beatings, distanced from the nickname his father used for him, “Big Nose”. So Neverland is a precise, negative dialectic of his father’s image as Michael set out to be everything his father was not by eviscerating any physical trace of his father through plastic surgery, performances which paled his childhood Jackson Five dances and which set the world of race and gender on its head.
I cannot view any of Michael Jackson’s decisions as “weird” or “eccentric”, no more than the fact that most of his life he had to take sharp measures to protect his privacy, to provide a semblance of a normal life for his family, and even to physically free himself of constant mobbings. Indeed, I would dare say that normal went out the window for Michael Jackson after 1982’s success of Thriller and from then on when he found himself amongst throngs of fans unable to escape “normally”. As Donald Trump details in this week’s Time:
We were at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. There were thousands of people literally crushing us. We had 20 bodyguards, but it was really dangerous. He dropped to his knees and started crawling to the exit. He did it so routinely, I thought he fell. And I said, “Michael, is it always like this?” He goes, “Yeah, this is nothing. Japan is much worse.”
Certainly for Michael Jackson to live within our concepts of “normal” was simply impossible since it has become clear to me in my research of this person, that nothing to which Michael Jackson was exposed was even a distant cousin of “normal”. He simply adapted to his surroundings, like moving through these crowds on hands and knees, as his normal.
We have lost a beautiful human being in Michael Jackson, a person whose only freedom from the incredible forces he faced much of his life was paradoxically his onstage persona, far from the insults and abuses of his father. And in this last period of his life his freedom was captured by literally shrouding himself from the media and public who, with reason, he grew to distrust, in creating his new brand of family. Of course, even then, this was still labelled as “weird”, or branded as what he most disliked to be called: “whacko” simply because that is how we were taught to think of an adult who identifies more with children and animals than the many adults for whom it seemed he often justifiably distrusted. So when I reflect upon what Michael Jackson has done as an artist and as a humanitarian attempting to raise public awareness about hunger, famine, war and racial inequality through his economic generosity and artistic brilliance, I find it shocking that even now, just days after his death, speculation remains rife about his character despite evidence which is shockingly demonstrative of Michael Jackson having been a victim of two rather exploitative families. Still the “public opinion” somehow goes against all logic and all documentation on this subject.
Which brings me to two lovely pieces about Michael Jackson. Ishmael Reed’s article, “The Persecution of Michael Jackson”, published on CounterPunch confirms that we cannot simply hold up our politicians and media as the arbiters of right and wrong for the danger that is common today is that an “all white electronic jury has placed itself above the law”, whereby media and public opinion has the last say. And then there is the recent piece in the Atlantic by Andrew Sullivan, “Thinking About Michael”, a piece which strongly argues that we have a role to play as well in this debacle which I stronly believe contributed to Michael Jackson’s death. Sullivan writes:
“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.”
In my recent foray in to all things Michael Jackson, I feel as if I have just lived through “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. This game of “who’s going to entertain our bored minds today” is a ploy that the media uses to “entertain”, a ploy which we as well engage consciously or not. Sadly, we choose to focus upon the negative fictions of this beautiful man rather than examine the beauty and generosity of a person who was so damaged by his family and extreme fame, that we no longer see ourselves implicated in his demise. Such manichean reductiveness, all for the evening’s entertainment and we are left with blogs which are quick to denounce a person they have all but created. I, for one, am happy not to own a television set and this is just another event to confirm that I will never own one.
I can only hope that Michael Jackson’s death offers us all a moment of sobriety to reflect on how, what and why we believe the things we do as individuals and why our culture so often feeds off the fictions of negativity and violence produced by our media, rather than gravitate towards the dreams, the creativity and love that Jackson’s music, dance, words and actions have given us all.
Because of Michael Jackson, I still dance on the bus.
JULIAN VIGO is a filmmaker and scholar who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.