I happened to be traveling in non-English speaking countries when the news of Michael Jackson’s death hit the communication grid. It struck me seeing the reaction of people abroad how rare were the gifts of Michael Jackson. I thought as well how easily he compares to the historical geniuses that we have been fortunate to view or read or hear in replay. It is unusual to be acknowledged as exceptional by your contemporaries, yet innately people around the globe saw Michael Jackson’s ability not as generational but as approximating the frequency of Haley’s Comet.
History tends to be kinder to the great than what they know in their era, if indeed they are recognized at all by those around them. The world knows much more of Shakespeare’s work than when he was writing the most beautiful verse in the most insightful plays ever penned. Mozart is performed more now than during his all too brief life. There is respect afforded DaVinci and Michelangelo and Goya that was denied when they walked, ate, slept and created.
It is not unreasonable to place the talent of Michael Jackson in the small roll of the best ever. There are many who would define art as something on a higher plane than popular music, who would keep painting, sculpture, literature, classical music and dance apart and disapprove of any comparison. It is also hard to imagine that critics would recognize any modern writer, composer or artist as being of the scale of Shakespeare, Cervantes, Dante, Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Velazquez etc. To suggest that Michael Jackson, pop prodigy, would approach such height may seem heretical.
But Michael Jackson, in his craft, was as uniquely gifted as those masters whose names I listed. For him to be considered historically brilliant, he will have to stand the test of time. I suspect he will. As much as we can be moved by grand works of the past, I doubt that our race will change such that down the long road we won’t be affected by the sublimity of the world’s greatest ever entertainer. For clearly that’s what he was.
He achieved, during a life cut short, what all of those other artistic icons could not – worldwide recognition for his work. I heard someone on CNN say that one of Jackson’s inspirations was PT Barnum. Can there be any doubt that Michael Jackson was the greatest show on earth? Yes, his staggering productions were collaborative efforts but Mozart wouldn’t be as inspiring if you were reading his music instead of listening to it. Television, radio, video and CDs helped make Jackson a universal phenom, a person more prominent than Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan and John Paul II. Nor was he famous just for being famous, the new by-product of more global media than there are good stories to tell.
Though the media spread the gospel of Michael Jackson, they didn’t create him. Those who can’t tell good wine from bad or Camembert from Kraft Thins didn’t need Michael Jackson pointed out to them. He was not an acquired taste or only for the discerning palate. Michael Jackson exploded at you in a way that was immediately obvious as special.
He was not the kind of artist best read alone or viewed in silent reverence or while wearing your finest garments. Michael Jackson danced over racial divides and economic chasms. You’d have to be a snob of the highest order to try to convince someone or yourself that his music, his presence, did not get into your bones and, at its best, sent shivers through your body. He brought his art to the masses in a way that was easy to appreciate and impossible to ignore
The worldwide outpouring of affection for Michael Jackson is genuine and worthy. Like most, including those who come not to praise but to bury, I didn’t know the man other than what I observed on stage and learned through the prism of ones who were close to him. Yet, I am confident he was as good a person as he was talented as an artist, if that matters. That didn’t make him perfect but who among us can make that claim?
I reject the argument that there were two Michael Jacksons as I would reject that same argument about any other person not clinically diagnosed as such. I believe that Michael Jackson contained qualities whose presence or absence goes a long way in defining who we are, empathy and humility. That’s not to say that people aren’t different away from prying eyes, most are. Few carry themselves the same way in public as they do in private. Most have a social face and a life reserved for them and those closest to them. But an image does not reveal who a person is in his guts. There are many rotten people who come across better than they are, but that doesn’t negate the fact they are fetid. Conversely, an empathetic and humble person is not less so because of his persona, be that soft or curmudgeonly. Nor does the commitment of errors diminish a person’s anima or suggest that he harbors the ubiquitous “dark side.”
If any of our lives were studied in full, it is likely that the constancy we like to claim, that we too often demand of others, would be found wanting. But a lack of constancy does not say who we have been over the long term. And people change, some for the better. It is possible to acquire understanding as we age and shed ourselves of prejudice, misconception and willful blindness. Like Ebenezer Scrooge, we may wake up one day and realize that our actions have been hurtful or self-centered. We may take that big step out of our own vast shadows and see the world through other eyes. And we may just remain the miserable, ignorant, selfish pricks that we’ve always been.
I am convinced that Michael Jackson was empathetic and humble though the world threw itself at his nimble feet and monitored his every move. There is no relevance in debating good Michael and bad Michael. Whatever he was, he was all of it. The Czech poet Rilke said, “Be careful when you cast out your demons lest your angels take flights as well.” We should be thankful that he was Michael Jackson, a dancing, singing and entertaining virtuoso and that our brief strut on this mortal coil coincided with his.
In the future, if such a thing were possible. when Michael Jackson is admired for his art, when the inevitable glory seekers, money hounds and insiders finish breaking faith, when the commotion is long forgotten as with the impetuous Mozart, the lover of male youth, DaVinci and the alleged misogynist Picasso, indeed for many of the past’s most talented and perspired artists, for like them it is his art that will endure not the distraction, when people talk about him in a tone reserved for the truly eminent, many of us would like to be among those fans yet to be and say, “I was there when he performed at the ….. For perform he did and surely we will not see his like in our time.