Michael Jackson is dead at 50. And that’s the end of it. On a day already made gloomy by the death of actress Farrah Fawcett, the King of Pop’s earthly reign came to an end.
And while I’m devastated for his family, mourning alongside countless fans around the world, my heart is mostly numbed by the news. After hours of watching media coverage of Michael’s death — the replaying of his music videos, the reaction interviews with celebrities, and the speculation over what will happen with his children and multi million-dollar estate — I am empty.
My sadness seems echoic, its source distant and remote. After all, the Michael Jackson I love died years ago, back in the ’90s before pajama-clad court appearances and fatherhood foibles turned him into a shadow of the king he once was. That Michael, the one from Off the Wall and Thriller who provided the soundtrack for the ’80s and inspired generations of men to float like feathers on their feet, died long ago. And though he’s periodically released new albums like HIStory or Invincible, hoping for a resurrection as if singing careers rise from the dead like Lazarus, I, like many of his fans, have been grieving the loss of the man he once was for decades.
And though the tones of grief are muted, my heart does break a bit in this moment for the marred legacy he leaves behind. Despite 40 years in the music business, over 75 million albums sold, and at least a half billion dollars earned, this is where his life ends — his reputation sullied by rumors of pedophilia and tarnished by eccentricity.
And while I hate to think of someone else’s life as an object lesson from which to learn, there is insight to be gained from this, our tragic loss. Michael was a consummate artist whose talent unequivocally transformed the music industry and opened the doors for black artists the world over. Inarguably, he was the best falsetto singer, the best dancer, the most generous celebrity, and the most creative entertainer of our time. And yet, I imagine the final song Michael’s life will sing is that the best is not enough. As brightly as his star shone in its height, his life ended in darkness. He was a modern Solomon sans wisdom, living life in excess unto death.
And maybe that explains the part of the King of Pop’s death that leaves me feeling hollow. Because I suspect in the deepest recesses of my heart, I’ve wanted to be Michael — well, maybe Michael without the glove, high-water pants, and plastic surgery. But to some degree his lifestyle exemplified the realization of some of my darkest desires.
I don’t mean to preach or dishonor Michael’s memory; but, let’s be real. When you consider the striving of our lives — our daily efforts to obtain more wealth, achieve greater success, improve our looks, or indulge our amusements — we are all, to varying degrees, becoming Michael Jackson. He was just better at it than we are. And throughout his life, and now more so in his death, we see where it leads. Want money? He had millions, and it isolated him. Want fame? Then trade in your privacy and give up ownership of your life. Want some ideal of beauty? Prepare to lose the brilliance with which God created you. Want to recapture former glory? Then live a stunted life, freakishly trying to replicate past success. For all his record breaking and making, Michael died a misunderstood, isolated, and financially insolvent artist.
This isn’t to say that his life was lived entirely in vain. Michael undoubtedly brought joy to millions through his music and humanitarian work, and he will leave a legacy of entertainment for many generations to come. But his permanent seeking, the self-acknowledged desires to be Peter Pan or become immortal, reveal that the things of this world never quite satisfied. I pray that his death becomes our own permission to stop trying so hard to be rich, famous or successful. Maybe now we can be content to live small lives, full to the brim with quiet purpose and satisfaction. (In this current economic environment, perhaps this will be an easier lesson for us to grasp.)
Of course we’ll miss Michael Jackson. We have for quite some time. But let’s make our tribute to him one that lasts. As he would have encouraged us to do, let’s look at the man in the mirror and live lives that are changed for the better by his story.
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