Michael Jackson left this world three days ago. But he hadn’t been living in it for a long time.
In fact, it’s hard to think of a celebrity who had less to do with the real world than Jackson. In the real world, you don’t have pet llamas or roller coasters in your backyard. In the real world, if you’re $400 million in debt, people aren’t still lending you money. In the real world, you don’t buy human bones, wear lipstick as a man or sleep with other people’s children in your bedroom.
Still, as soon as he died, Jackson – whom fans helped chase into his own private Neverland – was embraced as if he lived next door and inspired us every day. The hypocrisy of the cable news mourning is hard to stomach. Seeing Al Sharpton laud Jackson as some major civil rights activist or Christie Hefner celebrate his amazing business acumen is bad enough. (If he were so smart, how come he was so broke?)
But the whitewash of opinion being spouted by the public outdoes anything Jackson ever tried to do to his looks. Four days ago – when he was still alive – Jackson was perceived as a desperate, grotesque, off-the-radar, once-great performer turned weird, pathetic, possibly criminal and unable to sell records the way he did.
A day later, he was a world-healer, a joy-spreader, a one-of-a-kind man of magic.
I know death has a way of aggrandizing life. But some of the same people mourning the King of Pop for the TV cameras didn’t do a whole lot for him while he was here.
Parallels with another king
I always felt sorry for Michael Jackson. We were born in the same year, and, like a lot of kids, I watched him grow up, sang his songs, tried some of his dance moves.
But when I went to high school, he was playing nightclubs. When I went to college, he was touring the world. While I got married and found a home, he was wearing sunglasses and masks, had a dubious relationship with a woman to produce children, then cut her out of the picture.
Soon, all he had in common with the rest of us was breathing air and eating food. He loved Jackie Wilson and Diana Ross, but his life was more like Elvis Presley’s. Elvis was a white man bringing black music to a white audience. Jackson was a black man bringing black music to a white audience. Elvis died young, bloated and surrounded by drug rumors. Jackson died young, skinny and surrounded by drug rumors. Neither could go anywhere. Both holed up in secluded mansions. Both passed away unmarried.
Neither seemed very happy.
But Elvis chose show business as a man. Jackson, as a child, was pushed in front of the family singing group by a brutal, domineering father. There was no normalcy. No high school. No prom or graduation. Just records and screaming fans and, as Michael aged and altered his face, cameras and more cameras.
It’s no surprise that paparazzi already were gathered outside his rented home when the ambulance came for him. Earlier in the day, the press had been outside another hospital, chewing on the details of Farrah Fawcett’s passing.
Suddenly, it was as if all that media raced away from Fawcett’s death to chronicle Jackson’s. And that image tells you all you need to know about fame.
The value of a Jackson 5
You know what I wonder? I wonder how Jackson got along with his brothers in the end. In another life, in another world, being part of a huge family is a wondrous thing – supportive, loving, funny, chaotic. Did Jackson – who made tons of money with his siblings – have any of that family embrace in his final days?
If not, he missed out on the very thing he was closest to much of his life. And that’s a pity. I won’t be a hypocrite and say sweet singing and dazzling dancing give you a free pass – especially if it involved abusing children. I will say it seemed almost predestined that he’d walk a strange path.
But let’s be honest. Celebrating Jackson more in death than in life doesn’t honor him. If anything, calling him Wacko Jacko, chronicling his surgically enhanced face and making him a national joke, then weeping for TV cameras about how much we’ll miss him makes us seem, for the moment, even stranger than him.
Contact MITCH ALBOM: 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch "The Mitch Albom Show" 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).