My husband is a CNN junkie and, for nearly the last two weeks, I've been inundated with the Michael Jackson coverage. I have seen the newspaper coverage, the blogging coverage, the tweets. Finally, a few moments ago, I finally turned on the TV to watch some of the spectacle that is the Michael Jackson memorial service.
And I am bothered and disturbed.
It speaks, I guess, to the need these days to turn every celebrity death into a cause for national mourning - started, perhaps, with the death of Princess Diana. Every death is endlessly dissected and analyzed. The crowds gather, flowers are laid, memorials spring up over night. For some, they find greater celebrity in death than they do alive. The Michael Jackson coverage has taken on a hysteria and depth that has far surpassed all previous celebrity death coverage so far, except perhaps that of Princess Diana. But here's my fundamental problem - Michael Jackson is being canonized as a saint, which he clearly wasn't.
I won't say that Michael Jackson wasn't a terrific musician, because clearly that would not be true. Like Mozart as a child, a young Michael Jackson was a pop genius. Like Elvis Presley in his prime, Michael Jackson contributions changed music forever while in his twenties. And like so many who have gone before him, despite all of his positive contributions, Michael Jackson had a dark streak that cannot be ignored.
Michael Jackson was accused, at least twice, of sexual molestation. Did he actually molest those children? We'll never know, although in his interview with Martin Bashir he did admit to behaviour that we would likely find highly questionable in any of our own acquaintances. As so many will tell me and is a constant refrain from the many mourners, he was only accused and was acquitted of the charges. But OJ Simpson was also acquitted of his charges, and how, as a society, do we feel about him? He, too, was a genius in his own arena - the sports arena. He was a sports great, breaking records and barriers as one of the first black sports figures to go on to success as a spokesman and actor. Would he receive the same sort of memorial? The public outpouring? I dare say, not at all.
Yesterday, the legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, one of the few talking heads I admire, as he almost always seems to have a fair and balanced take on the stories of the day, stated one of the most obvious sentiments I've heard. Essentially he said that yes, he made terrific music, but would you leave your kids with him?
(I won't go into how one of the other panelists tried to state that some parents did, sensing an opportunity for financial gain if their kids got a little close, which, in my opinion, came dangerously close to saying that hell, they had it coming, didn't they? Please, let's not even GO there.)
And this brings me to my essential problem with the coverage. By all means, let us say that the man made terrific music, was a terrific dancer. Let us even mourn the demise of that music and the amazing dance skills. But let us not forget for a moment that that music came at a terrifically high cost - a cost that the media seems to insist on referring to euphemistically as his "troubles". It came at the cost of those children whose lives will never be the same, caught up in the frenzy and insanity that was Michael Jackson's world, regardless of the nature of the relationship. For those children whose relationship was either one of exploitation, or merely skirted the edge of appropriateness, there is a cost in the loss of innocence. Somewhere in this endless coverage, it has become inappropriate to criticize Michael Jackson, to discuss in measured terms the less palatable aspects of his life.
Let us remember that music, no matter how terrific and memorable and life-altering, cannot undo later bad acts. It is not a panacea for one's more unpalatable traits. And let us not speak of Michael Jackson as some sort of modern-day saint, but as a man (merely a man) with a great deal of musical genius and potential who somewhere lost his way into a lifestyle that few of us would condone.
Let us remember him as he truly was - and not as the saint we wish him to be and are pretending he was.