A Meditation on Michael Jackson
July 8, 2009 § 1 Comment
In any work of fiction, it’s imperative that the audience keep what is termed a “suspension of disbelief”. That is to say, an audience knows that what’s happening isn’t real, but the plot and elements of the story seem plausible within the context of the story. It doesn’t matter the genre—Fantasy, Science Fiction, general Fiction, Comic Books, etc.—what matters is we don’t get pulled out of the story because of something too unbelievable within the context of the story.
The case for suspending disbelief also applies to artists, especially performing artists. An artist’s persona and art is their story they use to connect with an audience, who then suspend their disbelief about the person behind the persona. Many times, we as audience members don’t want to know what lurks behind the surface, lest it ruin our enjoyment of the persona and the created artifact. But when the artifact created is deeply personal and empathetic to audience members (unlike, say, an abstract painting might be), the person and the persona collide into one amalgamated being. We begin to open ourselves up to the person, creating a trust that few artists are able to forge on any wide-scale basis.
This thought brings me to Michael Jackson. As the 80s waned into the 90s, nearly everyone thought that Michael Jackson wasn’t exactly all there (and there were more than a few questions about his sexuality). But still, most of his fans either retained their suspension of disbelief about him (he oozed sex in everything he did) or they just didn’t care as long as he was the same performing badass we all grew up with. However, during this time, Michael Jackson was carefully converging his persona with Michael Jackson the person, creating an interesting mix of controversy and adoration.
In short order, Michael Jackson sang about women (The Way You Make Me Feel), creating understanding (Human Nature), eradicating famine (We Are The World), and uplifting yourself by uplifting others (Man in the Mirror). If we were to believe in the songs, we had to believe in the artist, and thus we ended up having to believe in the person behind it all. Michael Jackson seemed to be a genuinely good person underneath it all, making his personal pleas all the more palatable for the general public.
Then came the (first) molestation charge.
As great as so many of his songs are and as great of an entertainer, dancer, choreographer, and composer he was, upon the accusations of child molestation, his increasingly odd behavior, as well as revelations about his wildly extravagant lifestyle, he no longer had an artistic port to dock his boat of understanding, goodwill, uplifting others, and yes, sex. What could he possibly sing about that his would-be fans would not only support, but could also arm them to maintain their suspension of disbelief?
Even if the accusations of molestation weren’t true—he was left with nothing to write about, sing about, or dance about. There were too many holes in the story. Nothing was true anymore, either for the audience or for Michael Jackson.
At the end of it all, he produced nothing of consequence in the last 15 years—during what should have been the prime of his life. Instead, he ended up a grossly disfigured man, a shell of what he once was, hooked on painkillers, imprisoned by his now world-famous persona that he could never escape and yet had no outlet for. Right or wrong, good or bad, this was the tragedy of Michael Jackson, a man who was not only one of history’s greatest and most influential artists, but a man who needed to create, to entertain, to move people.
Upon his passing, we’ve seen millions upon millions of people coming out in support of him. I’m not exactly sure why this is, but I suspect that some of it is because the crushing weight of the Michael Jackson story has been lifted and we can now enjoy the artifacts from when the story was fun and the ending was surely going to be good.