Four years after Michael Jackson’s shocking passing, I dust off an old note I wrote in it’s wake.
No more than 3 days ago my ESP kicked in and I picked up the phone to call a friend who was in tears at the time. Now we all know how us men just fall to pieces when a woman cries. I was duty-bound to panic.
“What’s wrong???” I almost wailed.
She replied simply “I miss him…”
“Who? I racked my brain wondering which punk-bitch was worth my air-time as I knew this was not going to be a short call. Why didn’t I keep in touch with her more often to know who was possibly leaving her grieving?
It turns out the “him” was MJ. The King. Michael Jackson who even in death creates the greatest spectacle known to humanity.
“huh?” yes I was confused. despite all the signs that the world had indeed gone crazy. she was missing Michael Jackson! really?
“I miss him The Shaka!” yup. It was confirmed. I looked out my window but I couldn’t see the pigs that were obviously airborne with wings… somewhere… anywhere.
What followed was an almost incandescent rant on my part. I have shared it in part with many over the past week. But never quite as succinctly as at that moment. It started out with a simply question: “what was Michael’s last album called?”
You may attempt to answer this now. don’t worry you have a lot of time between now and the end of this note if the answer doesn’t immediately jump out at you. Most people who are asked this find themselves saying something along the lines of “umm the one that had butterflies…” I commend their memories. Some don’t make it that far. These are the ones that will mention “History”. hmmm. And what year did it come out? Actually why not just tell me when was the last album that rocked your world came out.
I remember my mother buying me that double disk CD after I came back from his concert in Cape Town. The stellar world-wide explosion of lights and sounds that in my mind has dwarfed every musical performance I have seen since. Really. He was that good. So much that we all forgave or excused or even embraced his excesses. I personally embraced the excessive statue that loomed ominously over every concert venue. I played the disk over and over. I loved it. And somehow it still didn’t make it into my greatest of all time albums list.
Thriller did. Off the Wall did. Bad just slid in. Dangerous snuck in with the million and one house remixes (remember the time?). But History didn’t, even for all the nostalgia it was wrapped in. Like Madonna at the time MJ had seemingly run out of stem – in the studio; he kept chugging along in the tabloid stakes. Unlike Madonna however he never quite recaptured that magic. These past two weeks have brought crystal clarity to this reality.
Michael has been gone for a long time.
So what exactly was my friend missing? What on earth was the whole world really going on about?
I too found the news of his demise hard to accept. I was 3 minutes from poep-dronk and thought the news-bringer was just taking the piss. It had to be confirmed by a 6am 702 news reader. Wow. This story was real. I thought “Hey, this bra is so hard-up for attention he goes and dies…” I thought it was funny. I posted it. I thought the better of it when Protocol 376 of Life kicked in after my shower : never speak ill of the dead. I remember once putting a eulogy together for a relative that had pretty much wasted their life. It was no mean feat, rather an education in etiquette. I replaced my callous status, finding inspiration in one of MJ’s songs Man in the Mirror. I’ve always loved that jam. Believed it. I also have for a long time believed that indeed MJ’s demise was brought on by his greatness. It was a slippery slope from a night with Brooke Shields and Webster to one of many MAD magazine covers and re-wording of his then hit single BAD.
I remember a 12-year old me singing it out loud “now he hides out in mansion / tending to his private zoo / conversation comes more easy / with a chimp or kangaroo / and it’s so sad / so sad / you know it….” From then on every melt-down, scandal, and PR faux par was not only magnified but eclipsed his successes. His star began to wane and instead of just sitting it all out MJ chose to fight back with ever more weirdness. Not even the good reverend Sharpton’s contention that he was not strange but its was strangeness that he had to deal with will erase the past 25 years of eccentricities that have defined this legend. We saw it, we recall it. So I’ll spare u all an itemization thereof (I’m sure someone will put it in the comments below anyway).
My point though is that after Thriller the iconic MJ the genius slowly became MJ the ridiculous. He started selling more papers than records. Yup it was sad and even sadder is the truth that MJ left us a long time ago. So what was my friend missing?
3 years ago I experienced an MJ revival. MJ songs were blarring everywhere. I think it was MJ week on MTV and consequently all media started playing him for a month or so. You see MJ songs are infectious. You hear it and start moving. You start singing along. You start to recall those poignant moments in your life to which his songs were a soundtrack. Because MJ was everywhere. MJ’s voice was the wind beneath all of our wings. So if one hears an MJ track and one is a DJ, sure enough one will play an MJ track. MJ was the domino effect. I was interested to note how in all of the MJ music-fest there was scant mention of the man at the time. He was said to be living in Saudi Arabia covered in a burka. Nobody cared. We just sang and danced along. You see what MJ had done was successfully separate his legend with his life. It didn’t matter what he did. He didn’t even have to sing anymore. His greatness was assured and thank goodness was immortalized on vinyl, celluloid and all other manner of recording media. MJ was alive in his music and videos, he was alive on E!’s greatest moments in music. He didn’t need any further shows or albums. He didn’t need any further media attention. He could simply grow up and move out of the limelight and raise his “kids” to be “normal” little superstars. How mistaken I was. MJ couldn’t sit quietly. He need to resurrect himself. He’d gotten the bug that had bitten Jay-Z, Tyson, Eminem, Kaunda, Mbeki, Michael Jordan, Michael Schumacher and so many before them. Being the Greatest is not a lifetime epitaph and many do not realize when it’s time to go.
Sometimes our icons are trapped. Perhaps the same was true for MJ. His finances were revealed to be floundering amid allegations that people around him had acted with less than integrity. I could buy that. I couldn’t buy a 50 concert tour. Really MJ? The very same MJ whose health was failing, who hadn’t honoured any concert in years, who was reportedly addicted to medication and was increasingly reclusive. 50 @ 50? To put this into perspective if he did a different concert every 2 weeks if would take the better part of 2 years. 2 years on the road is a hard ask for anyone. I didn’t see it coming. I foresaw cancellations and court-cases. I foresaw more tears and jeers than cheers and I’m just a guy in Africa. WTF was he or his people or his family seeing? More fame and fortune? Really? So excuse me if I’m a little cynical when everyone cries and bewails his demise at his memorial.
This was MJ, the greatest entertainer of all time surely an option that wouldn’t kill him could have been found. No wonder the brother ODed. Or did he? I won’t expand on my crackpot theory that this was just another show and after all the boost in sales and royalties MJ is sitting somewhere quietly chuckling. Or maybe I’m just in denial and no different from everyone tearful at his loss.
Perhaps, but to me Michael was lost when I came to realise that his brand of self-hatred was so insidious and harmful to my generation. MJ and his family over the years began to whiten themselves, de-Africanise themselves, cynically lying about it whilst admitting that black was not good enough even though they had proved otherwise. The king who took Elvis’ crown was a black man. What a source of pride for a race looking for inspiration to hoist itself out of the pail of afro-pessimism and poor examples. But anyone born in the 90s probably didn’t know this until this month. Even his kids are lilly-white. Not that I have a problem with white people, just a problem with people insulting my intelligence, how does a black person have lilly-white children?! As a South African I completely understand the dynamics and permutations of race. Maybe all of his kids are throw-backs (to 3 centuries ago) Maybe, but that hair is too damn straight! No-one is against him adopting. But pretending that his entire linage is white and by insinuation furthering the myth that he is has be painful to the enth degree. Many may scoff at this but seemingly self-actualisation of black people means we become white. We speak white, we marry white, we act white. In MJ’s case he really did become white.
This is not a syndrome restricted to black people – Mahatma Ghandi discusses this in his essay “Becoming a gentleman”, numerous Chinese intellectuals are grappling with this right non; how to retain their cultural identity as they become more relevant as a nation – but this is a real issue for black folk and was manifest in their pride when Barack Obama became president. And here we had the shinning star, the super, the magnificent, the magical MJ crossing racial boundaries, affirming the boundless talent and creativity of an entire race, then turning around and shunning us, further adding insult to injury by claiming Vitiligo and telling us “it don’t matter if your black or white…”. hmmph. I’ve seen vitiligo it comes in patches and doesn’t come over one like a shower, nor does it come with a straight nose or straight hair. And you know what, black people still forgave him that. And then? He entrenches the myth of the black man as a sexual predator. Thanks alot MJ. I don’t know what happened with him and all those little boys and it’s very believable that certain parents were ruthlessly exploitative of their kids’ innocent relationship with the star. What boggles the mind however is how many times this thing came up. I mean at what point does the red flag pop up above a little boy’s head screaming “stay away Michael”? PR faux pars are R. Kelly performing at an all girl’s high school. Fuckup is MJ’s naivete in dealing with this and expecting us to keep forgiving him because he was “looking for [his] childhood…” The stain of sexual misconduct would not leave him at which point it was convenient for him to be black again. Why MJ? Why must sexual perversion be the domain of black people? Like the sax-playing black traits that led to Bill Clinton having his cigar lit up by an intern in the Oval Office. I all for people living their lives how they will but please let us stop right now this idiotic strain of celebrity thinking that they need not act responsibly because “they are people too”. This is particularly important for black celebrity. This was so critical for MJ. And he knew this. that is why he always said the right things in the media throughout his tween and teen years. That is why he was the biggest giver to Charities, that is why we heard more and more socially responsible messages from him. He was so media-savvy so how the hell could he let himself get caught-up in the same “lie” over and over again? And what if it wasn’t a lie? For his soul’s sake I give him the benefit of the doubt. Afterall MJ was my friend. I learnt his moves (and still they werent his moves), I knew his lyrics (and still everyday I am amazed to find out that what I thought was “shamon” was actaully “come on” and such similar tales).I was mesmerised by Moonwalker the movie that was the Matrix of our day (anyone recall Smooth Criminal and the “slant and sway”). I got up to level 8 in his video-game. I still grab my crouch randomly.
But for all the memories MJ had died. A slow painful death. Even one that the double-platinum Invincible album could conceal. A 100m albums to 10m in 15 years. Did anyone say Nas. Besides the sales (which mind you are still humongous. 10 million of anything is humongous) he’s creative edge had been blunted. Truly this was the end.
His first memorial being the horrific interview that revealed MJ as a freak. Damn u MJ!
As I watched the memorial this past week I became genuinely sad. Sad to have witnessed in my lifetime the rise and fall of so much greatness. And saddened that his influence on the world was still so profound that fans would commit suicide but he hadn’t put that influence to any good use in a long, long time. Sad that such greatness didn’t transcend him – when last did MJ introduce us to a new talent as opposed to promoting himself with Nsync, whereas a Quincy Jones had whole albums promoting new stars? How does U2’s Bono or a Cat Stevens eclipse MJ the humanitarian even as MJ entered the Guinness Book of Records for supporting the most Charities ever? MJ the Humanitarian was no longer relevant. Sad at the blights to his lasting legacies. And sad that everyone around me was acting the fool in his wake.
I enjoyed his memorial because it took me back. I didn’t really enjoy the covers of his tracks because they weren’t sung like him. I enjoyed some of the speeches but loathed the insincerity in others. I saw through the agendas of some seeking resurgent relevance and was aghast at the showmanship of his family. The Jackson droids turned the day of remembrance into a theatrical production. But that’s life. What a life…
I will not canonize or proclaim a martyr one that gives us greatness and then turns around and makes us question everything about ourselves. I will however mourn the passing of his potential and celebrate his talent. I will sing his songs. I will dance to his memory and keep his dancesteps in my club sojourns. I will practice some of his preaching. But I will not pretend that the world came to an end two weeks ago. I will not pretend all was well with him. I will continue to love his products but not pretend that I love the man. I will understand everyone’s sadness but I will not pretend to understand missing him. How could I miss him when he lives on in my i-tunes and on your radio. How could we all sniff “he’s gone” when he lives on on MTV and on DVD.
And isn’t that the best resting place for him afterall?