I’m sad, but not that sad, about Michael Jackson’s death. To me, it seemed like he’d passed from us a long time ago. The Kane of Pop had long since retreated into his isolated Xanadu, a bubble that not even massive debt, legal ordeals, and endless tabloid scandal could penetrate. His chart-topping years as the world’s favorite entertainer had long since segued into self-inflicted freakishness and cultural irrelevance. When he announced in March a long-running comeback engagement in London scheduled to start in July, his reappearance seemed that of a vampire or a ghost, hovering on the fringes of fame, hoping to drain one last bit of energy from a pop world that he had helped create but which had long since abandoned him to the wax museum.
But, oh, to think of him back then, back when he was remaking both music and television in his image, via the singles and videos from Thriller. The man’s ubiquity was rivaled only by that of the Beatles and his one-time father-in-law Elvis in their day. Lots of mourners have referred to Jackson’s music as the soundtrack of their youth, but in his case, it’s not a metaphor. For about two years in the early ’80s, you couldn’t turn on a radio anywhere in the world without hearing a snippet of a single from Thriller. (How cruel that Farrah Fawcett should die on the same day; if Jackson’s music was the soundtrack to our youth, Fawcett’s poster was the wallpaper.) It was a rare moment of cultural unity, one of the last ones before cable TV, the Internet, and the culture wars fragmented us into a billion different niche audiences. As Lester Bangs noted when Elvis died, what we’re mourning is not really the loss of the man or the artist (like the King of Pop, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll had long since become a reclusive travesty of his former self by the time of his early death), but rather, the loss of our childhood, and the loss of our connection to each other.
With regard to Jackson, that loss is one I felt more profoundly about four years ago, when I was covering his 2005 molestation trial for Entertainment Weekly. The whole experience was thoroughly depressing, and I knew, even as the acquittal came down, that his career was all but over. I didn’t know whether what he’d done was monstrous and criminal or just horribly inappropriate, only that a boy’s life was ruined, but so was Jackson’s. For a long time after that, I couldn’t help but be moved to tears whenever I heard once innocuous-sounding Jackson 5 songs like “I Want You Back” or “ABC.” What had become of the brilliant child (pictured, in 1974), his voice full of joy and uncanny maturity, who had sung those songs? How had he managed to squander lifetimes of talent to become the wreck he was now, a fall so epic it had taken untold innocent bystanders along with him? What a waste of artistry and good will.
Today, everyone seems to feel that way about the horror of Jackson’s final years, tempered with admiration for the sheer elation he once provided. Soon, we’ll have the autopsy and toxicology reports, and soon the legal battles will begin over what’s left of his fortune, and soon his children will be thrust unwillingly into the spotlight as forces beyond their control decide their futures. And the arguments will begin again over what kind of man he really was and what his legacy really is. But for now, we’re all awestruck fans again, marveling once more at his unearthly gifts. In our grief over his lost youth, his lost potential (and over our own), Jackson has united us once again, perhaps for the last time. So, to paraphrase Bangs, I will not say goodbye to Michael Jackson (especially since, like Elvis, he’s never really going to relinquish the stage). Instead, I will say goodbye to you.