(I wrote the following just under a year ago for a publication that never happened under a guise of friendship that was sadly too ephemeral. I thought it apt to put it here today.)
It is August. We still have days of warm sunshine left to bathe ourselves in, but the equinox has already past and soon the seasons will change. For millions across the world, the summer of 2009 will be indelibly marked by one day, and those that followed, full of initial shock and subsequent sorrow.
I refer to late June, and the death of a superstar. Michael Jackson.
Undoubtedly, no more has ever been written and talked about in regards to a cultural icon, and I am not about to embark on discussing his career in-depth, nor trawl through the muck-raking, conspiracies and gossip. The former is best left to those with more knowledge to make observation, and the latter holds no interest for me whatsoever. What are truths and what are lies will probably always remain blurred anyway. Society would perhaps be better looking to itself regarding why it allowed a psychologically disturbed individual to be pushed to the brink.
For yes, Michael Jackson was a deeply frail individual, and even if you knew nothing else one only needed to take a look at his face-altering over the years to see the glaring truth of that. Yes he was flawed, but true heroes always are. Personally, I’d long held a sense of pity for how he had turned out, at how troubled and tortured his existence must have often been. He was a star at six, a global celebrity just a few years later. Child stars, robbed of that most of us take for granted, invariably suffer, and he was the biggest prodigy of them all. To paraphrase the eloquence of Lemn Sissay, he died as he lived, with a thousand arrows in his chest.
However, is it not perhaps best to reflect on what a miracle it was that someone so unhappy was nonetheless able to lift and inspire across the world as he did? Certainly, one of the kinder aspects to arise from his passing is the way that, after years where scandal and ridicule were what came up in his name, there is celebration once more of the artist. Those who had not forgotten, those who had, and those that had never really known have come together and resurrected all that has come to stand as what truly gives him status as a legend of our age.
From those timeless halcyon days of The Jackson Five, and on to the birth of solo success, first with ‘Off The Wall’ and then the subsequent ground-breaking ‘Thriller’. No album changed the music business as powerfully, and the combination of Quincey Jones’s stunning production and Michael’s extraordinary talent saw him moonwalk into the stratosphere. And from there on in the music, the moves, the awe he created just grew. As the journalist and broadcaster Dan Cairns put it: “We must remember how he began and the magic he made, rather than what he became and the manner in which he departed”.
As an entertainer he cannot be denied as being truly unique and unrepeatable, a genius in his art of almost unworldly quality. There are those that burn so brightly they seem not of this Earth, and burn too fast because of it. Michael was one of those.
Despite the debate of his ever-changing personal image, and what some saw as a betrayal of his roots, it is without question that he also culturally ascended in a way that broke through barriers long after many would have said no barriers were left. And he was not unaware of this, as ‘Black & White’, and his 2002 speech in Harlem against industry racism would testify.
But, aside from the great gift of his creativity he leaves as his legacy, there is one more thing I feel is important to mention. Something all too often ignored. His philanthropy, his role as humanitarian.
“I wanted to change the world, so I got up one morning and looked in the mirror. That one looking back said: There is not much time left. The earth is wracked with pain. Children are starving. Nations remain divided by mistrust and hatred. Everywhere the air and water have been fouled almost beyond help. Do something!”
Much is written of his wild spending, the financial woes that followed, and of the millions of debt he has left behind. Equal to this is prediction of how much wealth will now be made following his death. Much less is spent discussing what he gave during his lifetime. In 1985 he co-wrote ‘We Are The World’ with Lionel Ritchie, which went on to raise $60 million going directly to the famine relief in Africa. It was in 1992, with the release of ‘Heal The World’ that Jackson started the charity organization of the same name, funding it further with all profit from The Dangerous World Tour. The ‘Heal The World Foundation’, which only added to the millions he had already personally donated, went on to airlift supplies into war-torn Sarejevo, as well as fund, wholly or substantially, over thirty other individual charities in both the US and around the world. The list of what he directly did is too long to put here, but as Ralph Waldo Emmerson put: “If just one life has breathed easier because you have lived, you have succeeded”. Many breathed easier because of Michael Jackson.
All this should be remembered. For perhaps it truly was the action of the ‘Man In The Mirror’. Perhaps in looking at his life in wake of his death we can be inspired to look beyond cynicism and see something greater, further reaching. As we listen to the music, as we try to fathom one man so unfathomable, maybe we can also take a moment to face up to our own reflection and ask what changes we ourselves can make that could make this world a better place. I would say this is an ‘Essentially Major’ question for us all.