Michael Jackson's passing put me in an evil state of mind. Not so much the fact of it, which was shocking and tragic, but hardly unimaginable given the downward spiral of his career during the last decade-plus. No, it was the mad rush to pronounce the man dead that bothered me. No sooner did we learn from reliable sources that Jackson had been found in dire condition than the death announcements started to arrive: first from the gutter-sniffing vultures at TMZ, then from veteran offal vassal Matt Drudge. And then from Fox News, that infallible resource that had labeled disgraced South Carolina governor Mark Sanford a Democrat in a broadcast only one day before.
All three declared Jackson dead before the official announcement at 3:15pm California time, which effectively meant that they published what they did in order to draw attention and stir up hits. It sickened me to the point that I had to close my perpetually open Twitter window around 7pm, and leave it closed until just after midnight. I reopened it in time to see some genuinely moving statements -- and some inexplicably pin-headed jokes, too. (Sad to find that a favorite prominent political blogger, whose observations I've always found ribald, brave and true, was so ready to take lame cheap shots -- but that didn't prevent me from weeding him out of my Twitter feed.)
By day's end, the Time Out New York music staff was instructed to post personal remembrances of Michael Jackson. I encourage you to read the collective post, as I do genuinely think it presents a multifaceted, cross-generational (and even slightly international) view of a major artist's passing. I'm not certain that my contribution won't contribute to the mythologizing I predict in the opening paragraph -- and it might already be a little bit embarrassing. But here it is, nonetheless, verbatim:
In the days, weeks and months ahead, grand mythologies will be constructed on Michael Jackson's behalf; perhaps a decade from now, we'll see a tome or two the size of Peter Guralnick's Elvis Presley biographies, aimed at stripping away myth to reveal something approaching truth. Until then, we will all be reflecting upon what Jackson meant to us, and upon the ways in which his saga may or may not have reflected upon some deeper strand in our collective consciousness as music lovers, as Americans and as fragile humans.
Michael Jackson was around as far back as I can remember, usually somewhere within a comfortable periphery of my conscious existence. The Michael of "ABC," "I'll Be There" and "Ben" was a childhood acquaintance; the Michael of Off the Wall was a bond between me and one of my closest high-school friends. Then came the Michael of Thriller, the mythic figure who shattered walls (the race barrier at MTV most especially) and floated on air. It is not hyperbole to state that Michael Jackson's moonwalk on Motown 25 was a moment of captured time on celluloid every bit as profound and archetypal as Neil Armstrong's venture. You could believe that Michael Jackson, having defeated racism, could just as easily shrug off the laws of nature.
Thing is, the closer we got to Michael, the more we realized that he'd never escaped some deeply ingrained pain, some terror of which we could only be vaguely aware. A precocious child became an awkward, childlike man; attempts at eroticism increasingly seemed like play-acting. Jackson retreated, grew odd, transformed, became alien. No longer fulfilling (or even able to calculate) the needs for which we originally desired and revered him, he attracted attention for all the wrong reasons. The darkness he'd successfully outrun for so long seemed to be closing in upon him.
I can't imagine that anyone in this office imagined Jackson's planned return performances at London's O2 Arena could possibly have been successful. Even so, several of us talked about wanting to attend; one of us surely would have. However impractical the trip might have been for most of us, the desire itself proved that our affection for Jackson had improbably endured everything.
And that resistant faith in what Jackson created—not just a body of unforgettable songs (though there are those, for sure), but a sense that boundaries were for breaking and miracles could be achieved—is what will surely linger as his dearest legacy, among those of us fortunate enough to have witnessed the years in which he walked on air, trailing stardust in his wake.
What a staggering life. For those who made it this far, here's Michael Jackson moonwalking on Motown 25: