Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Michael Jackson – 1958-2009

It’s been a little over 24 hours since Michael Jackson passed and there’s already been cultural blood spilled over what his legacy will be.

Jackson, The King of Pop.

Jackson, the sideshow freak.


Jackson, the trapped child.

Jackson, the business man.

Jackson, the father.

Amid all this speculation, no one can seem to avoid hyperbole. It makes sense; Jackson was an entertainment juggernaut that just doesn’t exist in today’s world of target markets, split demographics and declining record sales.

So yesterday came the media funeral procession — facebook was nothing but status update tributes, every newspaper started framing his life, even Iranians in the middle of their struggle for democracy took time to honor a man who’d dedicated himself to global peace.

What’s striking to me is that we still, by and large, seemed to come to a consensus on what he was.

Michael Jackson was part of a triumvirate of Western musical culture — the other two being The Beatles and Elvis Presley. When Lennon said The Beatles were “bigger than Jesus,” he appropriately characterized their stance in pop culture. They weren’t just artists, they were immaculate conceptions of their respective musical styles — Elvis being the father of modern Rock N’ Roll, and The Beatles being the savior and precursor to every pop rock band to ever form.

And their congregations still have an active clergy today — we still remix Elvis songs for dance hits, we still buy any Beatles rerelease or hidden gem that comes up and we recognize the sweat, blood and tears of their labors being mixed into the mortar for our pop culture foundation.?

But take a second to consider this question — had Michael Jackson not transformed before our eyes and lived among us as a quasi-human specter in the 90s and next millennium, but simply maintained his recluse personality until his death, would we remember him today as the legend he was?

Probably not.

That’s because his influence seemed to operate differently than Elvis or the Beatles. When I think of their impact on pop culture, I tend to view their legacy in two ways. First, branching off into a range of musical styles to come for the next 40 years.? Then, as tragic humans. We come to the notable tragedies and made-for-tv movies — Elvis and his problems with medication, women and ego. The Beatles and their infighting over creative control. Their relationships, their balance of life and fame.

They’re geniuses, but we’re reminded of their humanity.

Michael Jackson never gave us that sort of balance. He sacrificed his childhood for stardom. In a group of five talented brothers, he is the lead singer and soulful phenom at 11. For a child to contain that much confidence, talent and power is other worldly. And it’s more supernatural to surpass that level of talent as a young adult.

Much is made of his peak performance at the 25th anniversary of Motown. But be honest — from Off the Wall through Dangerous — is there any point during this era that can be characterized as less than perfection? His voice is this bizarre fusion of falsetto soul, inner growl and childlike tenderness that appealed to every American at one point or another. His dancing is not just well-choreographed, it was so immaculately precise and controlled, science could not have engineered something as dynamic. On top of his personal skill, his business acumen precipitated the rise of publishing rights as a dominant business of the record industry, his creativity in video format was model for all others and his placement on MTV MADE that channel.

But his personal struggle wasn’t about trying to balance personal affairs and business, it was trying to maintain a shread of his human form — something he almost seemed to work against. Jackson’s Neverland Ranch, chimp named bubbles, his constant plastic surgery and the widening gap between his private life and the media that was obsessed with him.

So here was this paradox of an image: a frail, confused, shadow of his former self in the public eye, and a coin-operated one-man stage show extravaganza. The ultimate showstopper stripped of any human form we could relate to.

And the fact of the matter is that Michael was so emaciated by the end of his career because he had sacrificed his body and life to his audience and fans. And while we can debate whether or not that laser-beam focus on one’s career cuts one off from reality, Jackson made no attempt to live in the real world. He created his own.

But the reason we would not have remembered him as we are now without the bizarre second half of his life is that he would be conceived of, more than any other musician of our day, as an icon.?

Not in the clich?d way we say it now — Madonna is an icon, Bono is icon, hell, Bruce Springsteen is an icon. Instead, he is iconic in the old-style religious sense. A source of worship, reproduction and emulation. One article made the claim that Jackson, in a sense, created the 80s. I would go further and say he created modern pop. He was the bombastic blockbuster that made every pop artist argue for their immediate beatification. Jackson is the only one who actually achieved such sainthood.

And as strange as it sounds, that status makes Jackson, as a person and force, blend into the background. Not because he’s a dime a dozen, but because he, in many ways, IS the background. He built this and gave himself completely to it. And had it not been for his personal struggles, he would have met that bar that Lennon glibly set for The Beatles. — He would have been the Christ figure of modern pop.

And while one could argue we would have recognized him as a legend moreso in that case, Jackson the man would not get the credit for that. Michael Jackson the force, the cultural god that is inarguably inserted into every aspect of American R&B and pop, would be credited. And people would question if what they experienced was somehow divine presence rather than the strength of humanity.

Instead, we got that dose of tragedy, failure and humanity that the other members of our aforementioned triad had. Except it came in a form that still made him otherworldly, but in a very conflicting way. Nobody could understand his obsession with boys — or his openness about this fact. No one understood why he chose to keep dismantling his body. Nobody could understand why someone so perfect in so many ways, seemed so repulsive and grotesque in so many other ways.

But when Jackson died, the public and media were confronted no longer with the shell of ridicule he had been reduced to, but to an amalgamation all of his forms.

And we were presented with the different routes to take.

Jackson, The King of Pop. Perfection wasn’t just his goal, it was his life philosophy.

Jackson, the sideshow freak. Such a punchline to the media that a rogue mooning during his Brit Awards performance was considered less disturbing than the performance itself.

Jackson, the trapped child. A man in arrested development caused one rock band to lament him as a “Mask of Hollowed bone/ Where a human is somewhere to be found”

Jackson, the business man. A soft-spoken, yet shrewd dealer who even screwed a respected Beatle out of the rights to his own music. (Although, he apparently left the catalog to him in his will.)

Jackson, the father. Even though he dangled one child off a balcony, he would later be seen bouncing him on his knee during an interview, strangely enough, like a dedicated, loving parent.

But in all of these descriptions, you don’t see this:

?”Jackson, the human.”

And we may never understand that description, because we never saw it up close and all other imprints of Michael Jackson upon American culture seem to surpass the limits of that definition.

So in the end, Michael Jackson’s legacy need not come with additions.?

Michael Jackson. We all know what that means.

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