Dear Parish Faithful,
I am not all certain how to react to the death of Michael Jackson, perhaps the last in a line of "kings of pop" that has run its course for about a half-century in America. Or, at least there is no "heir-apparent" on the horizon waiting to lay claim to that crown and mantle. My lack of any coherent reaction is primarily due to the fact that his music and pop persona held no attraction for me. (Perhaps some of you just breathed a sigh of relief and reassurance). Yet, that is not at all meant as an implicitly condescending dismissal of pop culture, as if I am somehow claiming to be "above" something like the Michael Jackson phenomenon. Since my birth was pretty much coterminous with the mainstreaming of "pop culture" in the meteoric rise of the first - and for many the "true" - king, Elvis, I have had my share of attractions within that ever-expanding field over the years. But Michael Jackson struck no chord with me. I have no recollection of "Thriller" and "Bad" whatsoever, never watched MTV, and only a rather vague recollection of the innovative "moonwalk." (Impressive as that "step" was, I will still give the nod to James Brown as an electrifying dancer). I do recall the appearance of the Jackson Five, but my interests were elsewhere, and my reaction to them rather tepid: even for "pop" it was just "too pop." I pretty much missed the 80's and 90's outside of being aware of what my children may have been interested in. This also spared me from the whole "Madonna thing" - both name and persona - which I consider "unfortunate."
If poor Elvis at the time of his demise was a mere shell or, even worse, a bloated caricature of his early days; then it seems almost impossible to describe what Michael Jackson turned into. The word that most readily comes to my mind is "bizarre." Even his most loyal followers must have felt some unease at the spectacle of this baffling transformation. The attempts at trying to somehow get a handle on the later persona that both attracted and horrified the public - "man boy," "Peter Pan," " a person of arrested development," etc. - were inadequate stabs at trying to provide points of reference toward some kind of recognizable prototypes for his baffling change and character. I am left with the impression of a kind of latter-day Howard Hughes who sought semi-reclusion from the dangers of the public world at large (even though he was planning a massive comeback). Here was a star adored by many but who seemed totally distant and cut-off from that very adoring public. One recent commentator - David Brooks of the NY Times(!) - said, that at one of Micheal Jackson's concerts that he attended, there was no rapport with the audience; but that Jackson was somehow performing "above" the crowd. I wonder if this disconnect is one of the reasons that the "grieving" process for his countless fans around the globe was quickly turned into a "celebration" of his life and art. If the only recent comparison to Michael Jackson's death in terms of global response was the untimely death of Princess Di, then it is clear that there was a far deeper and longer-lasting sense of grief over her death. If he was indeed "addicted" to a massive quantity of prescription drugs, then this only heightens his personal tragedy. Actually, others can judge as to whether or not he was truly a tragic figure or "only" a sad or pathetic figure in the end.
I am just sharing a few thoughts since we are all aware of the death of Michael Jackson, unless you just returned from the North or South poles. I will leave all of the moralizing essays to others - though God knows how one can moralize here! He was a cultural phenomenon of massive proportions witnessed to by massive media coverage. I would readily agree with anyone who dismissed all of this concentration on Michael Jackson as a massive overdose. Some of the "testimony" that I am reading about his greatness and place in history makes me wince. One may be sympathetic or one may be repulsed. Yet, if in the end, there is a sense of a life that became badly misdirected; and if there is a sense of something basic to our humanity missing in his life; then our 'better side" must be saddened to some degree when thinking over his untimely death. Or perhaps that is only the perspective of someone who is getting older.