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From Indiana To Neverland: Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson's death yesterday at the age of 50 has set off a media wave of tributes, remembrances, debates, and historical-legacy conversations comparable to what we saw in the wake of Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, and John Lennon's departures. He's earned his place in that pantheon, I'd say; there's no other performer I can think of from the 1970s and 80s who had such a hold on the popular imagination.

The King Of Pop

The moniker "King of Pop" is deserved, too, when you think about the string of hits Jackson had, which stretched all the way from the early days of the Jackson 5 to his last mega-selling release, the 1991 CD Dangerous.

His solo records Off the Wall and Thriller were ubiquitous when I was growing up. Whether you liked the music or not (and I liked quite a lot of the music off those two albums), it was omnipresent in a way I don't think I've heard since.

The Face And Feet Of TV, Removed From Life

Then there was video. In the days when cable TV was not yet a standard part of everybody's household, I traipsed with friends through cold and snow to a local pizza parlor to see the world premiere of "Thriller" on MTV. It was that much of an event.

Jackson not only broke the network's racial barrier, he shaped much of the culture of the 1980s through MTV. It's safe to say he'll be remembered as much for his visual appeal as he will be for his music.

His private obsessions and foibles, the stuff of tabloid delight for so long, added to Jackson's strange mystique. It wasn't so much that he was larger than life, it was that he seemed removed from life; as blogger Josh Marshall observes, much of the singer's personal and professional existence, in one way or another, was an attempt to defy reality, which is why his death seems all the more shocking.

Parallels In Other Worlds

This is generally a jazz blog, and Jackson has no immediate ties to jazz (beyond his relationship with producer Quincy Jones), but his fame and his cultural import overwhelm conversational boundaries.

It really does feel like an Elvis Presley moment. The rough parallels are there: overwhelming early fame; impressive, widely influential artistic accomplishments followed by a long, protracted decline; increasingly bizarre and reclusive behavior that concluded abruptly with middle-aged death. Indeed, it's possible in Jackson's case, as in Elvis's, his death was partly drug-related.

Like Presley, Jackson lived out an American dream and an American nightmare. Peter Guralnick's two-volume Elvis biography is by turns exhilarating, harrowing, and ultimately tedious (not the writing, but the story of Presley's final descent itself). It's a comprehensive portrait of fame's grotesque distortions, as well as the evolution of a singular talent.

Echoes From Other Eras

There's another American icon who comes to mind: actor and fellow Hoosier James Dean. One biography of Dean was called The Mutant King, a title that seems to invoke Jackson's eventual fate. Dean and Jackson were two boys from Indiana, dogged and driven in one way or another by childhood pain, who reinvented themselves, and in so doing reinvented millions in their likeness.

Dean's journey ended at age 24, the same age Michael Jackson was when he hit his artistic and commercial peak with Thriller, an album rife with some of the same anxiety of late adolescence and the panic of early adulthood that shows up in Dean's work.

If Jackson had died as young, or even just a few years later, we'd surely be remembering him in a different, less complicated way than we are today. Who's to say that Dean wouldn't have pursued his own bizarre paths of behavior as he aged? (Some think Dean's portrayal of the older, power-corrupted Jett Rink in his final movie Giant might have proved to be prophetic.)

Hometown Boys

Consider, too, the humble origins of both Dean and Jackson. Fairmount, Dean's hometown, still exists, but the kind of farming community that it represents is rapidly vanishing.

Gary, the lost city of steel from where the Jacksons grew up, casts an image of shadow and ruin these days. These places, both industrial and rural, gave birth to two of America's most iconic stars, each with an almost-unworldly charisma, a brilliant array of performer's gifts, a strong creative drive, and a deep-seated need to be loved.

With Jackson the signs became obvious later in life, but in some ways they were there all along.

'Where There Is Love...'

Last night CNN played a clip of Jackson in his childhood performing days. He said, "Everything that I sing, I mean."

A friend of mine heard "I'll Be There" on the radio this morning, and pointed out to me that the selfless, nearly-transcendental love that Jackson's singing about in that song probably existed for him only within the song itself. If that's so, he surely meant it, even if he seemed to be singing songs about more mature, sexual/ romantic relationships of which he probably had little or no experience.

For Jackson they were something else. They were testaments to an inner dream, and a means of eliciting another kind of love: the love of fans. That love grew bigger and bigger, and then it began to ebb away, partly because of the natural shifting and erosion of musical fashion, partly due to Jackson's personal troubles.

At the same time Jackson was growing older, moving farther away from whomever that boy had been who could put across a song like "I'll Be There" with such belief and conviction; moving farther away, perhaps, from the only real childhood friend he'd ever had.

'Reach Out Your Hand...'

Michael Jackson changed the landscape of American pop culture. His was a feat the scale of which we may never see again in our lifetimes.

Sadly, the culture changed him, too. The man in the mirror got lost in the funhouse, unable to find what he'd never had in the first place, becoming more and more desperate in his attempts to do so. Can you imagine being blessed with such talent, feeling so bereft of childhood love, and then becoming one of the most powerful entertainment figures in the world, able to have whatever you wish?

Neverland, His Rosebud

I'm sure building Neverland didn't make him happy in the end either, sure it failed to solve the equation of loneliness. It's almost impossible not to think of Citizen Kane and its protagonist, with his ever-spiraling constructions of grandiosity that can never compensate for the growing hole in his soul. Did Michael Jackson even have a Rosebud? Or were the last 20 years of his life a sad and futile attempt to invent one?

I don't want to suggest a celebrity parable here. I only want to acknowledge and respect the final, frail humanity of the boy who sang "Ben," beaten by his father, the young man who mesmerized millions with his flights of song and dance, and even the strange older adult who had to eventually realize that he, too, was caught in the gently merciless web of time.

For More Michael...

  • Read blogger Josh Marshall's observations about Jackson's reality-defying lifestyle.
  • Listen to a previous Night Lights show about James Dean.
  • Read an article in the New York Times about the lost city of steel, Gary, Indiana.
  • Find the lyrics to the Jackson 5's "I'll Be There".

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