As America quickly divides into opposing camps on Michael Jackson's legacy, gifted saint vs. freaky perv, I'm still hoping for quality commentary on the complexity of the man from people who can honestly admit that he was probably both. And if he was both, then to sadly acknowledge that so much of his potential was wasted by his narcissistic antics and and self-destructive addictions.
He never gave himself the chance to evolve from pop sensation to something deeper, like the Beatles and Sinatra did. That path was open to him (though following it can take it's toll, too, a la Brian Wilson and Elvis Presley).
What would these memorials have been like if Michael's legacy was untainted by self-generated scandal, if his philanthropy had not been greatly diminished by the financial indulgences that left him half a billion in debt? It's hard to imagine anything grander than the funeral he got. But would it have been so hard for anyone speaking at the memorial to at least acknowledge that Jackson obviously struggled profoundly with his own identity, or that he was brought down by addiction? That wouldn't have been disrespectful in the least, and might have helped as a message to the kids he seemed to care so much about.
Al Sharpton's comment to Jackson's own children: "There wasn't nothing strange about your daddy. It was strange what he had to deal with." Great line (got the biggest applause of the day), and fair enough as therapy for grieving kids, but not what I would call intellectually honest. Michael Jackson was unique. Many of his struggles and conflicts were of his own making. He WAS strange, complex, and confusing. Let's not quickly parse his legacy to make it easier to digest for either the lovers or the haters.
Here's one take on a topic that most are avoiding, Jackson's confusing sexuality. I have no idea whether he was gay or straight. He's probably beyond classification in the LGTBQ scale (though heavy on the trans-something, right?). Whether HE was confused or not, he's still a mystery to us.
Irene Monroe, from HuffPost:
Just as Michael was black, he was also queer, because he did not conform to our society's heterosexist norms. And as the man in the mirror faded from black to white, so too did his staged gender performance, from cute straight boy lead singer of the Jackson 5 to an effeminate male solo artist donning outfits in sequins.
And as the consummate drag performer he was not only a singer and dancer, Jackson was also a shape-shifter.
Jackson's transitioned himself first into looking like Diana Ross and then later into looking like his baby sister Janet and then later he transitioned himself into something, well, as inhumanly ghastly as he became more ghostly looking.
Jackson's gender blending was as transgressive, tabooed, and subversive as his skin bleaching.
He wore many masks until the masks became him....
When Jackson tied the knot first with Lisa Marie Presley, Elvis's daughter, in 1994 following the first child molestation charges in 1993, everyone knew that Jackson was in damage control mode. And in his second marriage, rumored to be not consummated, in 1997 to Debbie Rowe, who is the mother of two of Jackson's three children, you get to see how compulsory heterosexuality exacted a toll on his life.
For my part, I would have been fine with a gay Michael Jackson. I would have preferred it to the contortions he went through to prove otherwise. I bet he would have been healthier in all parts of his life.
Maybe my hopes for a thoughtful discussion were too high for the first two weeks of media frenzy since his death. I guess I'm waiting for the 800-page biography from someone who has access to those who really knew him but doesn't have an predetermined agenda. That's a tall order, I know. But I'll wait.
For understanding and deconstructing an American pop icon, I can recommend P. Guralnick’s two-volume biography: Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley (1994) and Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley (1999). They only took about 20 years. Let's get him to work on MJ right away.
UPDATE 7/9: Nelson Montana, also a blogger at HuffPost, chimes in on this theme:
He wasn't an amazing child prodigy who ran his course and moved on. He grew as an artist and went on to have a career that overshadowed anyone else in the industry. ... He had talent beyond mere mortal proportion. And he died mysteriously at a young age. So stop trying to make it out like the coverage is overkill...
Now to anyone who extols the magnificence of Michael Jackson and feels compelled to defend him, you too have to accept certain realities. Michael Jackson was crazy. No, not eccentric -- crazy. In a way that was fearful. It couldn't have been any clearer. And he was stupid. Yes, let's get real. The guy was dumb as dirt. Why is that so hard to accept? Because it's "mean" to say so? If you want to find meanness, you're looking in the wrong place. The biggest culprits were those closest to Michael. ...
As a New Yorker, I can't understand that with so many friends and family, (many of whom were so very tearful at the funeral) no one ever approached Michael to do what any self respecting New Yorker would do. Just say; "Hey Mike, stop being such an asshole." And keep saying it until it sinks in.