[Web Special] Transcendent in Life and Death

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Comparisons come almost too easily. One can rank the hype and pure star power of Michael Jackson up there with the most famous people who have ever lived. His reach was planetary in scale. His loss delivers the shock and tragic complexity of the death of Elvis Presley, John Lennon or Marilyn Monroe. But focus on Michael himself and the comparisons evaporate. This is an irreplaceable talent that sadly the world lost some time ago. By the time of his death at age 50 this week, Jackson had receded from a world that could only witness him in bizarre glimpses. Those glimpses continued all evening on television news reports showing blurry crowds and telephoto shots of ambulances. As in life, in death the best mere humans can do is get a ticket for the global stadium event.

Michael was outsized from the moment he took the stage as part of his family's irresistibly appealing Motown act. But he immediately outgrew his family; over time he became, as the King of Pop, bigger than his genre. Then, at the top of his game, he exceeded the scale of celebrity itself. In the late 80s and 90s Michael hung out with actress Elizabeth Taylor because almost no one could match his towering profile of talent and weirdness. ... Continue reading

There is no way to overstate the impact of Jacko on pop culture. Michael: the voice, the feet, the songs, the hats, the gloves, the self-mutilation, the pure genius are all instantly recognizable signatures. He created the music video industry and it barely survives him. "We are the World," the song he wrote for starving Africans in 1985, was instantly iconic both as a cry for world peace and as a braying mantra of empty celebrities trying to save the world in their spare time. Both issues emerged in the 80's with Michael Jackson defining the style and literally writing the lyrics of those messages. In the world of music alone he went from pop prodigy to songwriting voice of an era to an entertainment behemoth who bested the Beatles and Elvis and became the prototype for Madonna, Elton John, Prince and the dazzling mix of musicianship and excess that is hip hop.

In the end, Jackson defined celebrity itself and embodied the most rococo versions of the celebrity narratives of dissipation, psychological scars, bizarre sexual proclivities, and a studied frailty that seemed to trap Michael in a permanent childhood. By the time of his death he seemed to shed any category that might box him in. Michael Jackson was defined by no relationship. By the time of his greatest success he had shed his hometown of Gary, Indiana (hardly a surprise), but he also shed his family ties and his early days raised as a Jehovah's Witness. His marriage to Lisa Marie Presley was a side-show at best. Even his racial identity faded — he eventually seemed to erase his skin color altogether as the result of mysterious treatments for even more mysterious diseases — in the end, achieving a kind of universal Michael-ness. In his last years he seemed even immune from bankruptcy, in motorcades and chartered jets despite any hint of collapsing fortunes. His wispy strangeness became as iconic as any of his early gestures. The hair, the glasses, the sun umbrellas, the breathy voice were as recognizable as anything he ever did.

Listening to the coverage tonight, even the people who claimed to know him sound like they are comparing notes about an event they sat in the bleachers to observe. He was "strange," "great," "extraordinary." Words fall short. Michael himself did not encourage people to understand who he really was. Aside from suggestions that his abuse as a child explained him or that having had no childhood explained his behavior, there is very little to go on.

My favorite Michael Jackson quote is also one of the simplest. As a little boy he was asked what he thought about when he was singing and he answered after a breathy pause, "I mean it when I sing. I don't sing it if I don't mean it." It must be there in the lyrics. Billie Jean, Human Nature, Thriller, ABC...

Oh Baby, give me one more chance?