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June 30, 2009

Michael Jackson: A One-Glove Salute

At some point earlier this year I was sitting in my car when an old song by Michael Jackson came on, and a strange thought occurred to me: How in the world will I ever explain Michael Jackson to my children?

Let's try: He was a singer who grew up in poverty-ridden Gary, Indiana, became a musical superstar as a little kid, and upon reaching adulthood enjoyed a 10-year run as the biggest musical star in the world. Oh, and he also underwent a series of increasingly grotesque surgeries that turned him from black to white and eventually into something resembling an alien. He was tried twice, 12 years apart, for child molestation but never convicted. He had three children who rarely appeared publicly except in veils, and oh yeah, he used to wear one, shiny glove, and loved to interject vocal tics like "hee hee" and "jamon" into his songs.

Only in America, no doubt about it.

Michael Jackson died Thursday at the age of 50, and for someone who spent several years as arguably the most famous man in the world, there are many, many mysteries about him some of which will probably be solved in the coming months, but others that will likely remain mysteries forever.

Was Jackson really a pedophile? What, if any, mental illness/other health problems did he suffer from? What's the parentage of his third child, and what was the true story behind his two marriages? That's just the start of a very long list. Margo Jefferson dealt with many of these questions and more, including issues related to race and gender in Jackson's career and persona, in her standout 2006 essay collection On Michael Jackson.

One thing there was no mystery about Jackson created a catalog of amazing music that has stood the test of time and will likely remain part of the 20th Century songbook well into the current century. His creative peak came with the Thriller and Bad albums in the '80s, but his Jackson 5 work resonates much better than most '70s pop music, and his work in the '90s and later showed occasional flashes of brilliance.


True, his star certainly waned in the last years of his life. "Michael Jackson Deposed as King of Pop in Hitless Coup" was the classic Onion headline in late 2001. But Jackson's career was full of comebacks, and he was even planning another for the month after he died.

Of course, cable news soon became all-Michael, all the time, in a feeding frenzy unseen since the aftermath of the death of Anna Nicole Smith a few years ago. True, Jackson, unlike Smith, was an actual figure of cultural consequence, but still . . . what's going on in Iran these days is both much more historically significant and much more urgent than the latest developments in the death of Jackson who, to paraphrase Chevy Chase, is still dead.

Also shortchanged by Jackson's death? Farrah Fawcett, who succumbed to cancer earlier the same day. Although I have a feeling Mark Sanford was breathing a sigh of relief when he heard the news.

Michael Jackson's life was complicated, eventful and ultimately hellish. But it was absolutely, undoubtedly, one of a kind.


2009 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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