Friday, July 17, 2009

Can we stop judging now?

I was on the green line the other day, heading toward Kenmore Square, when the woman next to me leaned over to peer at the Michael Jackson video I was watching on my iPod. "Which one is that?" she asked me. I told her. She watched a moment with me and said, with what seemed like real sadness, "It's too bad that he died."

But when she spoke again, the sadness was gone. "You know he did it to himself. Drugs."

I didn't respond, but her comment got me thinking. Why do people love criticizing Michael Jackson so much, and why do I react so badly to it?

In a previous post I described how much I've enjoyed Michael's music over the years. After reflecting more, I realize that I also empathize with his angst, or what I imagine his angst must have been. In many ways, I think he got a bad deal in life. From a more selfish perspective, I think he epitomized for me at a very early age what it is to be vibrant, likable — unbeatable, even — so much so that both his death and the apparent unhappiness of his later years are sobering. So is the scorn that some seem to feel for him, even in his death.

Of course, judgments of Michael Jackson are nothing new, but back in the day, they were way at the other end of the spectrum. I remember it, even though I was only 13 when I first became aware of him in a significant way. As I recall, up to that time the sexiest thing I'd ever seen on screen was Han Solo. And great as Han Solo was, Michael Jackson was more electric, more vulnerable, and more real. Closer to my age than most celebrities, he seemed both the same as me and yet nothing like me. He was like the impossibly cool older brother of a friend, winking at me knowingly from light-years away. For a lot of his 1983-era fans, it would have been more comfortable if he'd stayed that way, but of course he didn't.

When "Bad" came out, I saw the same physical changes everyone else did. But to me the biggest change was the expression on his face, which now seemed worried, and maybe just a little bit pissed off. I can still remember how, like attack dogs smelling fear, pop-culture critics — even the amateur 18-year-old ones — zeroed in mercilessly on these perceived weaknesses. Me, I didn't see them as weaknesses. I commiserated. At the time, I too was worried and a little angry, as, with a perfectionist's unforgiving eye, I lamented the distance between my accomplishments and my goals. Thank God my goal wasn't to top "Thriller."

These days as writers chart his life, they make much of the fact that he apparently became angrier in the years following his biggest success, as if this were the first sign of fatal flaws. These articles often have headlines like "The Talent and Tragedy of Michael Jackson." For many, the "tragedies" are the unproved allegations about him, but a strong emphasis is also placed on his oddities: his changing appearance, his penchant for exotic pets, his childlike tendencies. And don't forget the fact that he dressed his kids in veils, that he commissioned some kitschy artwork, and that his fashion sense declined during the '90s, as the Globe helpfully reminded us the week after his death. In general, the mainstream coverage has been kinder than it was during his life, but poor taste still rears its head: The generally good Time special edition uses the pejorative nickname "Jacko" (which, as Jon Stewart wisely observes, should have died when Jackson did). In a separate piece, a writer for declares that Jackson was "a pariah to all but the most brainwashed of fans."

Many of the blogs out there are even more harsh. I read one item recently that speculated favorably about what it would have been like if MJ had died in 1984. This same blog entry stated that had MJ just been busted for drugs or hitting a photographer, the public would have been more understanding of him. Perhaps not all of these comments are meant to be taken literally, but to me they're still a bit chilling. What kind of commentary on our culture is it when we think it's better to be violent — or dead — than alien? Not a good one.

Interestingly, those writers most scandalized by Jackson seem fond of stating that there were "two" Michael Jacksons: a good early one and a bad later one. This strikes me as an awfully convenient way of compartmentalizing the various black-and-white judgments to which these observers are so committed. But is it honest? Think of the worst thing you ever did. Was that the "bad" you? Or was it the only you, the one that's predominantly good but fallible?

I admitted previously that it had crossed my mind, "Why did he have to get so weird?" then I later felt bad about it. When I examine that thought, I realize that we like what we understand. We understand a good-looking black kid who can sing and write songs. That's easy. We don't understand, and don't like, someone who changes the color of his skin, whose pop sensibilities grow more off-key, and who engages in behaviors that seem foreign.

So, it seems to me that two mistakes are being made. One, people often are equating "unusual" with "bad," and in some cases "sinister." People also apparently want to assign blame, which leads to the second mistake: blaming the person, not the circumstances. One wonders if these critics would also blame the anorexic, not anorexia.

Personally, I don't think we need to throw up our hands and investigate why it is that Michael Jackson had a pet chimpanzee or walked around with a parasol. His addiction to plastic surgery is more disturbing, but even if we take the most negative view — that for some reason, he didn't want to be black — we should consider his environment. Undoubtedly he experienced racism. Add to that the fact that his childhood traumas were more spectacular than most of us can grasp, that international stardom brought pressures the average person can't imagine, and that he was damaged throughout life by a camera crew of "Truman Show" proportions, and we can't know what he went through. None of us knows how we would have fared under the same circumstances.

But for those who see his arc as negative, perhaps that's the scary part, and that's why they feel the need to critique him so harshly. They prefer to label him as a fundamentally flawed because to do otherwise is to acknowledge the possibility of frailties within themselves. After all, Michael's arc in many ways is the same as anyone's: Who among us, except the very young, can't recall a time when we were more beautiful, our lives more promising, our histories unmarred by some embarrassment? Throw in a few exceptional obstacles — physical abuse, isolation, public condemnation — and who knows how one's own arc would skew.

I'm reminded of a debate I once had with a friend about Patty Hearst. His position: She should have been stronger. My position: She was kidnapped, locked in a closet, raped and worse, and when finally freed, she found that the country was furious with her, not with the SLA. Why? In my view, it's because people didn't like to think that they could be as vulnerable as she turned out to be. My intuition is that we are all more like Hearst than we want to admit. We're fragile. We're not necessarily designed for abuse, and none of us should be punished for that.

Unlike Patty Hearst, Michael Jackson was never convicted of a crime. The vast majority of criticisms against him are for utterly benign things. In almost all cases, his actions affected no one but himself.

So, as to the "tragedy" of Michael Jackson: The tragedy is not that he became angrier after "Thriller." It's not that people became displeased with his appearance, his personal life, or his music. The tragedies are that he suffered, and that he's gone.

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"West African Dark Blue Cloth" image is displayed courtesy of the Richard F. Brush Art Gallery at St. Lawrence University.