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Michael Jackson's Final Death

Why did so many find his personal hell amusing?

Adrian Mack 26 Jun 2009TheTyee.ca

Adrian Mack writes about music for The Tyee and others.

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Grotesquely damaged.

Skepticism greeted the initial announcement on TMZ.com that the King of Pop was dead. There will probably be some who continue to doubt, Elvis-style, that Michael Jackson died yesterday at the age of 50, while others still might argue that the very troubled performer suffered a variety of deaths over the last half century, on any number of less tangible levels.

Notwithstanding that we watched his sanity crumble before our very eyes, Jackson struggled miserably to match the artistic and commercial synergy of 1982's Thriller, which itself was the lesser album compared to 1979's visionary Off the Wall. Artistically, Bad (1987) signalled the end for those of us interested in Jacko as any kind of musical force. And that was more than 20 years ago.

The only real story between then and now is Jackson's mythically oversized personal hell. That one of our most vivid, shared cultural memories might be the sight of the grotesquely damaged artist tearfully protesting his innocence in the first of two wretched child abuse scandals speaks volumes. Especially since so many people of the late night talk show and tabloid disposition inexplicably found it all so amusing.

It wasn't, of course. And if the rumours that emerged from brother Jermaine's scrapped tell-all are to be believed -- that Michael's unearthly talents were pimped from the get-go in exchange for influence -- then our lazy callousness towards his suffering and those he was alleged to victimize is all the more damning.

Peter Pain

I keep thinking of Judy Garland as I write this. The narrative is so weirdly similar: a life of towering genius blighted by bottomless corruption, all for our entertainment and somebody else's wealth, with a tortured child at its source (and Oz). No wonder we feasted on all that pop-psyche hooey about a Peter Pan-complex, the "lost-childhood" -- as if the poor kid was merely overworked -- and Neverland. The truth was too much to bear.

MJ was human wreckage on a never-before seen scale, which I suppose is the symmetry that comes with celebrity on a never before seen scale. As the Guardian's Joe Queenan put it in 2007, "He was so famous that if you cut his fame in half he would still have been eight times as famous as the next most famous person, whoever that may have been."

Queenan was writing about "Billie Jean," and that's where we should probably leave this -- on Wackson Jackson's highest ever note. It was revolutionary moment, never to be repeated, and it still brings a shiver. That "Billie Jean" can still and always will outrun the gravitational pull of such a monolithically dreadful backstory is perhaps the greatest tribute. Plus it's a helluva piece of music, (although this is my personal favourite).

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