Yesterday, I felt a strange urge to give calls of concern to the other giants of my childhood.
I don’t have anything profound to say about either of the superstars that we lost. Neither were particularly inspiring for me personally, even though they did loom large on the landscape of my childhood. I haven’t watched a flicker of television coverage, and I’m trying to avoid the hype. So I’ll just mark the day with a few words about what the news called to my mind.
It interesting: In the community where I grew up, both Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson were discussed as icons of Satan’s work in the secular world. When I was a kid, I responded with fear and suspicion to images of Jackson… because I was taught in Sunday school that rock music was of the devil. I responded with feelings of contempt when I saw images of Fawcett, because I’d been given the impression that anyone who put up posters of pretty girls was basically selling their soul to the red guy with the pitchfork.
By the time I was a teenager, Fawcett was already an icon of another era. But Jackson was huge. I became conflicted about what I had been “told” to think about Jackson’s music, and the fact that I found it irresistibly funky. Jackson was popular with the “rebellious” kids in my conservative Christian school, and “Beat It” and “Thriller” were huge. Me, I loved “Billy Jean” best; it was so irresistibly funky. But I didn’t dare admit it to anyone around me, especially myself. And when I thought about the lyrics, I felt guilty for even listening. So I made up alternate lyrics that I could sing, to drown out the actual lyrics.
In my late teens, I had begun to see through the fears of my community, and began to realize there was nothing wrong with loving exciting music. But by then, my interest in Jackson’s music had dwindled. That’s because there was an authenticity to his early recordings that was exciting, an authenticity that vanished after Thriller. The songs became Statements, Shows of Defensiveness, Rants, and Self-Important (But Shallow) Anthems about saving the world. His music became secondary to his persona. He moved into reactionary mode.
And who could blame him? He was suffering in the spotlight we forced on him at every turn. The conversation shifted to concerns and sensationalized gossip about his childhood, his interests, his habits. We were making it impossible for him to grow and develop with the freedom and the relationships that are essential. We sentenced him to something like solitary confinement in a crowd. And he responded by grasping – however inappropriately or perversely – for that time when he knew a more innocent existence, when he was surrounded by kindred spirits, young brothers and young sisters.
So he loved E.T. Not Elliott, mind you, but the alien. (The only Jackson album I owned as a teenager was an LP of Jackson narrating the story of Spielberg’s extra-terrestrial.)
Isn’t it interesting? Jackson was moved by the story of a gentle character
- who feels cut off from his family and his home,
- who flees through a dark forest, pursued by hostile men with bright flashlights who want to capture and analyze him;
- who eventually finds understanding among children in a room filled with stuffed animals;
- who is captured and persecuted and sealed into an insulated, sterile existence;
- who is persecuted;
- whose life is choked out of him; and
- who has magic in his heart that is a guiding light to the children he loves, and who love him.
Meanwhile, Jackson’s recordings began to feel calculated and over-produced. They no longer sparked that (yes, here comes this week’s most overused word) electrifying feeling of seeing someone supremely talented caught up in the moment of inspiration. It seemed his wealth allowed him to insulate himself from the fans–which was probably a good thing. But the wealth also cut him off from sources that might have brought real help for his reported troubles.
I cannot imagine what that was like for him. But for me, he became a metaphor, and so did his worshipful fans – representing so many wrong turns and cultural diseases.
Somewhere, some of those dismissive people from the community where I grew up are probably saying “I told you so.”
But no, I don’t think what has happened fulfills any dark prophecies regarding Jackson’s music. It wasn’t rock and roll that did this to him. He was a supremely talented pop musician and performer and innovator. At his best, he reminded us of the power of the imagination. He revolutionized pop by combining influences and styles in a way that brought disparate audiences together in appreciation of a fuller vision. And for a while, his performances were a celebratory fusion of arts.
I confess, I know next-to-nothing about Fawcett’s life. She all but vanished from my pop-culture radar in the 80s and 90s, and I refuse to educate myself with the idol-worship tributes going on right now. Maybe I’ll learn her story later. But I am very grateful for her small, unglamorous, and affecting performance in a film about faith and human nature that moves me deeply every time I see it: Robert Duvall’s The Apostle.
May God have mercy on them both, and grant them peace.
I’m going to continue to ignore the onslaught of press on Jackson, but friends have recommended these four pages, and I have found them well worth reading, in part because they remind me of the human being concealed by so many layers and barriers… some he made himself, and some we constructed for him. These articles cultivate more compassion and understanding, rather than throwing fuel on the fires of hype, hero-worship, mockery, and condemnation:
- Robert Hilburn offers thoughtful, compassionate reflections on his interviews with Jackson;
- Lisa Marie Presley offers what strikes me as a genuine and loving testimonial about their relationship;
- music critic Steven Thomas Erlewine comes to a conclusion that feels true;
- and finally… Roger Ebert offers perspective on the man who built Neverland.