When Michael Jackson’s daughter, Paris, paid tribute to her late father at his memorial service, we glimpsed a side of the pop icon we’d rarely seen: the father. As Paris Jackson choked back tears and said, “Ever since I was born, Daddy has been the best father you could ever imagine,” the star’s weirdness and personal troubles became a lot less relevant than the fact that his kids were now without a dad.
That was one example of the way in which the public’s impression of Jackson was reframed after his death on June 25, 2009. As details emerged about his ailing health, his drug intake and his still fraught relationship with his family, an unexpected human side of Jackson emerged. In one day, it seemed, he went from looking like a mega-celebrity weirdo to seeming like a troubled, middle-aged guy with health problems.
If we never saw the “real” Michael Jackson, well, that’s the singer’s own fault, said veteran rock critic Nelson George, whose book “Thriller: The Musical Life of Michael Jackson,” came out June 8. Jackson spent most of his adult life fabricating a façade that ensured the public viewed him as an oddity, George said.
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“There was the sense that he was a figure that was almost a cartoon,” said George. “I think a lot of Michael’s problem was he became wedded somehow to this image of himself as the eternal innocent — the eternal child. If he had been able to show people his regular side, or the more normal side, he would have had a much better outcome and I think people would have treated him differently.”
George noted that Jackson’s eccentric indulgences (multiple plastic surgeries, a pet chimpanzee) were initially considered amusing by the press in the wake of his smash album “Thriller.” But when the inevitable backlash hit, Jackson couldn’t stem the tide of bad press, so he retreated further into his self-made fantasyland.
“We all forgot that this was a real dude,” George said. “When you look back in his life, how many of the themes of his songwriting and his videos were of this damaged kid trying to make himself into something? I really feel like he became ‘Wacko Jacko,’ as opposed to Michael Jackson, this little guy from Gary, Ind.”
Jackson’s apparent failure to embrace adulthood also made him something of a Peter Pan-like character few people could relate to, said Joe Gross, the pop music critic for the Austin American-Statesman. “He was famously childlike, with his estate full of toys and fairground rides. This was not a guy you associated with adulthood.”
‘Big, bigger, huge’
George said Jackson’s habit of staging events on a grand scale often “worked against us seeing him as a real person.
“He never wanted to do what Prince did, for example. Prince went back and started doing smaller venues where people could almost touch (him) again and see him as a musician. Michael would have benefited incredibly from that kind of strategy. But he didn’t see himself that way. Everything had to be big, bigger, huge.”
According to George, Jackson’s attitude began to reek of “kingly” behavior, “and we act very negatively to that — we don’t like kings.” The public saw the worst of that type of conduct after Jackson was accused of child sexual abuse.
“Here’s a guy who is accused of child molestation who says he sleeps with kids out of pure love,” George said. “OK, and maybe I’ll take him at his word. But after he goes through the trial and the public humiliation, he doesn’t stop doing it. That’s arrogance.”
‘People could more easily deal with his memory’
Looking back at the news reports that followed in the wake of Jackson’s death, it appears the details surrounding the tragedy stripped away any myths Jackson had built around himself and revealed a life more troubled than most casual fans may have realized.
“I remember feeling very sorry for him,” said Martha Bayles, author of the pop-music history book “Hole in Our Soul,” recalling her emotions upon hearing about Jackson’s death. “He’s one of these people that celebrity just turned into a bizarre human being. It’s just weird what celebrity does to people sometimes.”
Jackson’s death made everyone remember the artist who got buried beneath a pile of controversy and bad decisions, said Jeff Leed, the music editor of Buzz Media. “I think that it took his death for some people to actually give a fair hearing and a fair review to his music,” said Leed. “And particularly this applies to the music that he made after the child molestation allegations surfaced.
“For a variety of reasons, it became very, very difficult to consider his music on its own merits for the last 20 years of his life. It’s a little bit easier (now), I think, to separate his life’s narrative from his music.”
Bayles noted that some of Jackson’s artistic decisions may have been motivated by his desire to be taken more seriously as a performer, since critics often dismissed his music as mere pop that lacked much artsy intrigue.
“(There is an idea) that somehow glossy dance music is easy to do well and that being dark and negative and self-searching is somehow hard to do,” Bayles said. “I think that’s an artifact of the critical standards that people have now about popular music. To have that kind of exuberant energy that his music had at its best isn’t easy. If it were, then every boy band in the world would be successful.”
One big reason Jackson’s death brought out such a great amount of public mourning is that his fading reputation had become an impediment to the public appreciating him as an artist, said psychologist Stanton Peele, Ph.D., who penned a Psychology Today blog entry on Jackson titled, “Did Some People Need Michael Jackson to Die?”
“People could more easily deal with his memory than with his actual living presence,” Peele said. “His current lifestyle wasn’t consistent with the appreciation that people wanted to pay him.”