Regular readers will know that I usually refrain from comment on the lives of entertainment celebrities unless I feel there is a point to be made beyond simple voyeurism. I do feel compelled to share a few thoughts regarding the sudden passing of Michael Jackson.
To me, Michael Jackson for a long time has been a tragic figure. So much talent and so much promise, but his life is a vivid illustration of how our modern “celebrity culture” destroys lives. Jackson went from being a handsome black man to a disturbing white androgyne; from the world’s darling, the “King of Pop”, to an accused child molester; from being a multimillionaire to being millions in debt; from being the world’s number one performer and recording artist to being unable to perform on stage or even clearly remember his own accomplishments through the haze of drugs.
In the long run, I think Michael Jackson will be rightly remembered for his music. But we should pause to reflect on the disturbing path his life began to take beginning in 1979. That was the year Jackson, already a megastar at 21, broke his nose during a dance move. His rhinoplasty was botched and led to subsequent nasal surgeries, which in turn led to purely cosmetic surgery on his eyes, lips, nose, and chin. Combined with the burns to his scalp sustained in 1984 while filming a Pepsi commerical, by the late 1980s Jackson was virtually unrecognizable, anorexic, and addicted to painkillers. The contrast between photos of Jackson in 1984 and 1988 is striking and shows the change from a heartthrob to a disturbing figure. He had become such a mega-celebrity that no one around him had the guts to stand up to him and make him seek counseling or go to rehab. Jackson’s money bought silence and acquiescence to his every whim, including the purchase of the Neverland Ranch that ultimately led to his downfall and debt.
Among the many eulogies being delivered for Jackson, I am particularly struck by comments made by Rabbi Shmuely Boteach, a close friend and companion of Jackson’s – to the extent that he indeed had any close friends – for about five years. While Boteach is a controversial figure who is himself accused of using Jackson for his own self-promotion, much of what he says in today’s Jerusalem Post rings true:
“While I was heartsick at the news, especially for his three young children, I was not shocked. I dreaded this day and knew it had to come sooner rather than later….My fear was that Michael’s life would be cut short. When you have no ingredients of a healthy life, when you are totally detached from that which is normal, and when you are a super-celebrity you, God forbid, end up like Janis Joplin like Elvis…”
Boteach writes that “In many ways his tragedy was to mistake attention for love.” In fact, many of the oddest rumors and stories about Jackson – such as the story about him sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber – were spread by Jackson himself as publicity stunts. Ironically, he later came to fear the intense media scrutiny that he had fueled, shielding himself and his children from the public with masks and veils.
Much has been made of Jackson’s abuse at the hands of his father as being partially responsible for his warped life. Yet, countless others have endured childhood abuse and grown up into remarkably normal individuals – haunted by their own demons perhaps but fundamentally no worse off than their neighbors. Rather, it was Jackson’s super-celebrity status that operated to prevent him from getting the help and care that a normal person would have. He stopped listening, so those around him stopped talking.
Jackson’s musical career was staggering, but one can only imagine what he might have been capable of if he had been healthy and able to devote himself to his music for the last 15 years. Ultimately, Jackson’s family’s loss is shared by everyone who was touched by his music. But as the world grieves for Jackson’s death, I find myself more inclined to grieve for his sad and painful life.