Skip to content

Michael Jackson’s Legacy: Neither Black Nor White

Yesterday afternoon, a full 19 minutes after the Associated Press confirmed Michael Jackson’s death, a former publicist for the singer sent an e-mail blast to media outlets offering to spill firsthand details of Jackson’s “impossibly difficult and often self-destructive journey.” And really, who better to sit in judgment of the man’s scruples and morals?

But while that offer seemed so repugnantly opportunistic in the moment, even by our culture’s standards, before the shock of the news could even settle in, there is little question that someone will take this cretin up on his offer. The dirt is coming, and it’s coming soon, and it’s coming hard.

The immediate aftermath, though, is meant to be a dirt-free zone, a time to honor Jackson’s immeasurable achievements and talent and to somehow untangle those qualities from the baffling mess of his inner life; to separate these two aspects of his character, as if they were indeed distinct entities. Such was the tenor of the cavalcade of talking heads on the teevee last night whenever the words “molestation,” “vitiligo,” or “Macaulay Culkin” were uttered: “We’re not going to talk about that tonight. That’s not how he will be remembered.”

But in the case of Michael Jackson, to separate the sublime from the surreal would be to miss the very point of what made him such a unique, otherwordly presence — you could not have one without the other.

Someone who had reached such an unmatched level of ubiquity would simply have to suffer some sort of commensurate turmoil. To emerge from that life wholly grounded and psychically intact would be far more inexplicable than dangling your kid Blanket off a fourth floor balcony. One simply could not be famous since the age of 8 in what could charitably be described as a toxic family situation and go on to create the most successful piece of popular culture in any medium that the world has ever seen without becoming profoundly, deeply fucked up. He experienced the good and the bad in equal, unprecedented ways.

Further, just as the punditry-elite agree that Jackson’s is a talent that the world won’t see the likes of again, neither is his inscrutable character. Nothing could shine a brighter light on the numbing dullness and transparency of today’s class of pop stars than remembering Jackson’s divisive weirdness.

Iconic pop stars should be weird and unknowable, that’s what we’re paying them for. They shouldn’t be typing their observations into their iPhones 140 characters at a time; they should be shooting their televisions and comparing themselves favorably to Jesus and collecting African babies at will and sleeping in hyperbaric chambers with well-dressed chimpanzees and possibly, regrettably, kindergartners. Because we cannot. We need them to live lives we’ll never know, lives we shouldn’t know; to be, if not above the law, then certainly beyond the pale. We’re not gonna get this from Ciara and Ben Gibbard, no matter how much we beg.

Us magazine isn’t necessarily wrong: Celebrities are just like us — smile to the cameras as you buy arugula, Kim Kardashian. The mistake is lumping Michael Jackson in with that phylum. He exists — present tense — on an entirely different level, and if you were to count off others who might join him there, you wouldn’t make it to a second hand.

So brace yourself for the torrents of bad vibes and strange tales coming to a supermarket checkout rack near you soon, and console yourself knowing that while they may be hurtful to the man, they will ultimately only add to his considerable legend. Then remember how important it was to Michael Jackson to be thought of as a legend and hope that just maybe the last derisive laugh will be his.