After a week of rolling my eyes at the grotesque verbal pieta constructed around Michael Jackson’s death — with the media casting itself as Virgin Mary, cradling the fallen King of Pop down to the earth — and then, despite myself, watching the entire glitz and glam, toe-tapping memorial service on Tuesday, capped by the tearful, heart-rending outburst by his daughter, I experienced a sudden what-if moment. What if Jackson in fact never laid a hand on any of those kids during his infamous “sleepovers”? What if the millions he forked over in 1994 to make child sexual abuse charges go away wasn’t hush-money but grief-money, paid not because he thought he’d lose in court but be cause he felt he couldn’t endure a public trial? What if the seven counts of child sexual abuse he confronted in 2003, based on the allegations of one young boy, were merely an attempt by the boy’s family to extort more money out of Jackson? (Jackson was, after all, acquitted in court that time.) What if he had, as one mental health expert blithely asserted, regressed to the childhood he never knew…and so the sleepovers were, at least in Jackson’s mind, just sleepovers?
But then, before the pangs of doubt could coalesce into genuine sympathy, I remembered that horrific moment in 2002 when Jackson dangled his infant son over the railing of a fourth floor hotel balcony in Berlin. I remembered the sight of the baby’s legs kicking spastically in the air, and I remembered, most of all, the maniacal Lord of the Flies expression on Jackson’s face as he taunted the crowd with the potential murder of his own child.
Jackson might not have been a sociopath. (Sociopaths, as a rule, are cagier than Jackson ever was.) He might even have had a core of decency and good intentions. But he also had an ugly streak that cut deep through his emotional landscape — as much as we might be inclined to overlook it given the shock of his death.
The irony, of course, is that for a time Jackson possessed as much physical beauty and grace as anyone who ever inhabited the planet. If you want to glimpse the full scale of Jackson’s self-destruction, or perhaps self-mutilation is the right term, go to YouTube and pull up the video for “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.” The song comes from Jackson’s 1979 album, his first as an adult, Off the Wall. Aesthetic judgment tends to be subjective, so I’ll just ask the question: Has any movie star or fashion model ever looked more handsome? Has any trained dancer ever been as light on his feet? Fred Astaire, whose opinion should count, once called Jackson “the greatest dancer of the century.” If you pull up an earlier video of a 16-year-old Jackson performing “Dancing Machine” with this brothers on the old Merv Griffin Show, you’ll see what Astaire was talking about. Jackson, at his best, seemed to strike a devil’s bargain with the laws of gravity and motion. He seemed to float through the air without leaving the ground.
The devil’s bargain Jackson struck with adulthood produced less thrilling results. In noting his Peter Pan complex — which is undeniable — commentators have often overlooked the all-consuming vanity that accompanied it. Peter Pan, remember, won’t grow up because he wants the innocent pleasures of childhood to continue forever. Jackson craved those pleasures too; his Neverland Ranch, replete with amusement park rides and live exotic animals, was a testament to the collision of childhood desires and monstrous wealth. But there was nothing innocent in his decision to hire women to produce his children… “his,” it now seems, only in the sense that he contracted for them. The names of the two male children are themselves monuments to Jackson’s self-indulgence and egocentrism: “Prince Michael Jackson” and “Prince Michael Jackson II.”
Jackson’s sons are princes, you see, because he himself is the King of Pop.
Even in Jackson’s least self-centered moment, when he dedicated his singing and songwriting talents to the cause of African relief — I’m talking about his involvement with the USA for Africa charity in 1985 — even then, his immaturity shone through the chorus he wrote for that year’s mega-hit: “We are the world, we are the children / We are the ones who make a brighter day so let’s start giving / There’s a choice we’re making, we’re saving our own lives / It’s true we’ll make a brighter day, just you and me.”
Except we cannot all be children. The entire world cannot consist of children — though, of course, children habitually fantasize about a world in which there are no grown-ups making rules that children have to follow. Adults, on the other hand, know in advance the outcome of such a world…you’d have the older kids dangling the babies off balconies.
You’d have Lord of the Flies.
Indeed, it is the very lack of adult supervision — the lack, specifically, of the rule of law — that has kept the sub-Saharan Africa in a perpetual Lord of the Flies state since roughly the end of European Colonialism. That’s the reason millions of African children were desperate for relief back in the 1980s, the reason they’re desperate for relief now, the reason they’ll be desperate for relief for the foreseeable future. Shoveling money at Third World poverty — the childish solution — won’t cure the problem; on the contrary, hard experience demonstrates it will only strengthen the dysfunctional regimes that immiserate their people.
To remember Michael Jackson as a humanitarian, therefore, is nonsense. To remember him as an adult is painful; it was a role he never grew into, a dance step he never mastered. What remains is to remember him as a child — an actual child, singing and dancing and glowing with talent — before that first fateful moment, circa 1979, when he stepped in front of a mirror, came face to face with an approximation of human perfection, and decided, vainly and in vain, he could make it better.