The Cult of Michael Jackson
On the one-year anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death, I must admit that I’m part of the Cult of Michael Jackson (MJ). (I will be playing his music ALL DAY tomorrow.) The immediate news of MJ’s passing crippled the Internet for hours and went on to dominate the media for weeks on end. What is the draw/appeal of Michael Jackson in both life and death?
I. The Freak Show
Anyone born before 1981 remembers what MJ looked like naturally. Anyone born before 1986 remembers what MJ looked like with relatively dark skin. Anyone born before 1994 remembers when he was still of musical relevance. Anyone born afterward probably cannot disassociate MJ from allegations of child molestation. The fact of the matter is that MJ was the train wreck we all loved and hated to watch. His nose frequently changed. Then there was the sudden lightening of skin color. Rumors of hoarding the Elephant Man’s bones, spending time with his monkey friend Bubbles, and sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber. He seemed so normal then suddenly became… so weird — “Wacko Jacko.” The moonwalk was a cool dance move; the crotch grabbing… eh, not so much. It’s always easier to make fun of the person who stands out and seems a little off rather than express care and concern.
II. The Magic
In spite of the freak show status that surrounded Jackson, the Elizabeth Taylor-dubbed “King of Pop” infused new life into entertainment. Jackson was a creative genius, a brilliant mind who is emulated by many R&B stars in song and dance today and helped solidify MTV (for a little over a decade anyway) as the place to turn for innovative music videos. His concerts were nothing short of amazing and nothing was too over-the-top to be used on stage. *NSYNC, Madonna, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, and Xtina (to name a few) have all taken cues from his spectacular ability to put on a mind-blowing show.
III. The Madness
Jackson grew up in front of the spotlight, working hard as a child star. When most boys were outside running around or playing with trucks and toy soldiers, Jackson was running through rehearsals or performing in front of audiences. As a child, all he did was work — he was never able to have a childhood. Once he grew up and established solo success, he craved the childhood he’d been robbed of. He founded children’s organizations, created Neverland, and loved to play childish games. At a point where most adults had matured and accepted the responsibilities of adulthood, Jackson reverted to a childlike mind with juvenile mannerisms. In American society, such behavior is not tolerated or accepted and shunned. And it’s this behavior that would unfortunately bring him legal trouble and rumors of child molestation, tarnishing his reputation forever.
A year after Michael Jackson’s passing, he still has devout fans (of which I am one). These fans loosely comprise a cult which will rival that of Elvis Presley’s. Why is this so?
I. A Reminder of Our Childhood
Michael Jackson has dominated media attention for nearly 50 years. Many people alive today associate Jackson with their youth. It’s been at least 20 years since Jackson debuted the Moonwalk at the Motown anniversary special. Jackson’s album, Thriller, has sold 110 million copies worldwide to date making it far and away the best-selling album of all time. (AC/DC’s “Back in Black” comes the closest at 49 million copies.) But Jackson continually (you could also say obsessively) pointed back to his lost youth through songs like, “Heal the World,” “Childhood” and “The Lost Children.” (I’m particularly fond of the latter song.) On a personal level, my parents always said I had three favorite singers as a child (and we’re talking about my toddler years – sorry if that makes you feel old): Cyndi Lauper, Tina Turner, and Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson enamored me like no other entertainer.
- As soon as Bad was released in 1987, my dad brought home a copy.
- When I was 8, I had a large poster of Michael Jackson up in my room. (The lighter skin didn’t bother me; he was still pretty cute!)
I ate up concerts or performances of Jackson on TV. (Wow – was there ever time without Internet? *end sarcasm*)
- When Jackson released Dangerous in 1991, I snatched up the CD from the now-defunct music store The Wall (an ancient predecessor of F.Y.E.).
- I was glued to the TV for the premiere of Jackson and Michael Jordan battling it out in Jackson’s newest single, “Jam.”
- I flipped on Soul Train each Saturday afternoon for a few weeks just to catch a glimpse of Jackson’s “In the Closet” video, with Naomi Campbell.
- I watched “Remember the Time” for the first time with baited breath as Eddie Murphy, Iman, and Magic Johnson graced my screen.
- I tuned into Fox after the Simpsons for the 10-minute long debut of the “Black and White” video featuring Macaulay Culkin.
- When VH1 played Jackson’s Live in Bucharest concert, my father would alert me and I’d stay glued to the TV in anticipation of seeing the “Smooth Criminal” choreography.
- On the flip side, when my uncle passed away from AIDS in 1993, I wept dearly to “Gone Too Soon,” a song for Ryan White whose life was also claimed by the same disease.
- After my father heard “Will You Be There?” (popularly known as the Free Willy theme song), he said he wanted it played at his funeral. Unfortunately, when my father died in 2001, that didn’t occur. So in 2005, I chose to walk down the aisle to that song in honor of my father.
These are a few of the many ways that Michael Jackson touched my life. Memories in my life have become intertwined with his work and music. I still own the vinyl copies of Thriller and Bad and also own the copies of Dangerous (still 1991, baby!), HIStory, and Invincible (Jackson’s last major LP of all-new, original music) on CD. I’m just talking about my experience for the past 28 years. I can’t imagine how much Michael Jackson’s music might have impacted someone’s life even before I was born.
II. Classic Case of Worshiping the Created Instead of the Creator
I’m a born-again Christian so I had to say it although I know many people will disagree with me. Michael Jackson has always seemed larger than life. In my young, starstruck eyes, Jackson could do almost anything. (Perhaps this is especially dear to me as a Black American.) Jackson met with presidents, founded charities for children, worked tirelessly as an early advocate to find a cure for AIDS and combat poverty, but also created thrilling music videos, devised new dance moves (which people were always trying to duplicate), and created that perfectly annoying song you couldn’t help but tap your feet to at the store checkout counter. Jackson had fame and fortune. He had success and Neverland — the King of Pop seemed to have it all. And people are always looking for something or someone who seems bigger than they are, someone they can aspire to be like. Michael Jackson did not just remain a teen idol; he morphed into a musical god who people worshiped.
III. The War Between Innocence and Guiltiness
After child molestation allegations from 13-year-old Jordan Chandler surfaced against Michael Jackson in 1993, die-hard and casual fans alike ended up in two camps: either Jackson was innocent or guilty. A trial surrounding the allegations began but Jackson settled out-of-court in 1994 with the Chandler family leading some to believe that Jackson was trying to circumvent a guilty verdict. (A sad aside note: Jordan’s father, Evan who some believe may have pressured Jordan into lying about sexual abuse, killed himself late last year for reasons not publicly known.) Over a decade later, allegations of sexual abuse from another 13-year-old boy surfaced again, and this time, Jackson vowed to fight the charges in court no matter the cost. Despite the fact that Jackson was cleared of allegations five months later, he had suffered permanent damage to his career, reputation (especially among children), and finances. By this point, Jackson was no longer seen as a successful entertainer; he was either seen as a pedophile or a victim who had been exploited by greedy families. (To learn why Michael Jackson was innocent and framed by the media, read the interview with former Fox News correspondent Aphrodite Jones who covered MJ’s 2005 child molestation trial and initially believed he too was guilty.)
So upon the anniversary of the greatest pop entertainer music will ever know (yes, I said it), I find myself mourning so many things:
- A father to three children
- A son and brother to the Jackson family
- A loyal friend to Elizabeth Taylor
- A tortured yet talented genius who reinvented pop music and dance for all races for generations to come
- The first Black American to transcend all racial barriers and become an international superstar
- A man who could never reclaim his childhood
- A man who was always lonely, always abused in some way, and could never find peace on this earth
- A man who quietly sang in the background of my life, contributed to many of my dearest memories, and will forever hold a special place in my heart