As if he needed any, the old Thriller finally received posthumous support in his bid to be remembered as a helpless man-child. Now that the coroner’s report found “The cause of death is homicide,” those outstretched arms and the crotch-deep howl, the idol’s open shirt flapping in the soundstage fans, all start to look more like a crucifixion and a defiant cry of “It is finished,” rags tastefully covering his loins.
Christ-pose aside, when the self-proclaimed King of Pop died, I turned to the Old Testament to make sense of it all. The Proverbs say, “Those who ignore instruction despise themselves.” This is a chilling appraisal of the self-love we thought grounded Michael Jackson’s career. Surely he had been given instruction concerning the many substances he (or others) shoved into his body. How can such a talented artist be revered for his inventiveness and creativity, while at the same time babied and protected for his willful ignorance?
In the Seventy-Third Psalm, Asaph, renowned musician and leader of King David’s choir, was concerned about his own preoccupation with celebrities. “My feet had almost stumbled,” he admits, “my steps had nearly slipped” because he found himself envious of the arrogant, those whose bodies are “sound and sleek,” who are seemingly “not plagued like other people” but prosperous and popular.
After the death of MJ and the adulation it inspired, I found company with old Asaph. The psalmist questioned the status quo and the amnesty afforded those whose hearts “overflow with follies.” Like him, I wondered about our putting a performer’s works before their faith. The “Greatest Entertainer Who Ever Lived” lacked the strength to complete the greatest show of his career—fifty consecutive shows in London—and this is a terrifying glimpse behind the ease of riches and mastery of image that so frustrated the ancient poet.
The difference is, of course, that Michael was certainly plagued. His strangeness nearly overwhelmed his artistic accomplishments in life. He was loved, lauded, and imitated on a scale that the celebrities of Asaph’s time could not even imagine. At the memorial service in Los Angeles, Stevie Wonder said, “As much as we may feel, and we do, that we need Michael here with us, God must have needed him far more.” Even Asaph would groan at that one. Into the second most-viewed funeral in television history, the well-meaning singer’s singer had to introduce some bad theology so those millions watching could again think that Christians worship a Father who takes human lives when he needs them—needs them for what? I hear the rough voice of Blind Willie Johnson singing “God Don’t Ever Change”: “He’s God all by himself, he don’t need nobody else.” It is never a part of God’s “plan” for anyone that they become so enfeebled, so compromised, that they can no longer fulfill their calling. Asaph understood that God leaves the celebrity in some “slippery places” where they may fall to ruin:
How they are destroyed
in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors!
They are like a dream when one awakes;
on awaking you despise their phantoms.
Oh, and don’t we despise Michael’s phantoms upon waking from this dream, the phantoms of insecurity, megalomania, drug dependence, perfectionism, and reputation. When pundits draw parallels between Elvis and Michael, they are not just reaching for easy comparisons. Like Elvis in Bruce Springsteen’s “Johnny Bye Bye,” Michael was found at home “with a whole lot of trouble running through his veins.” Both men found it hard to live within the isolated lives they had made for themselves but were loath to admit this to their legions of supporters. When the Clash empathized with “All the Young Punks,”
You gotta drag yourself to work
Drug yourself to sleep
You’re dead from the neck up
By the middle of the week,
They knew this was even more true of those who crown themselves king.
In the book The Brothers, musician Cyril Neville tells a story that evokes another reason why those “whose hearts overflow with follies” wear pride as their necklace and “violence covers them like a garment.”
When I was a teenager, we were riding around in his cab listening to “Route 66” on the radio. I changed the station. James Brown came on.
“First off,” Daddy said to me, “don’t go changing the station without asking me. That was Nat Cole with Johnny Miller and Oscar Moore. Now, I know this new boy is popular, but I see where he puts that shit in his head.” Daddy was referring to James Brown’s famous process. “He don’t respect himself.”
Then Sam Cooke came on. “Now, that boy don’t distort his looks. Let his music play.” “You Send Me” never sounded so good.
Michael Jackson distorted his looks, and for many of us, even those who grew up with him, that meant “he don’t respect himself.” It became increasingly difficult for me to take him seriously, to believe in him as an inspirational presence and peace activist, despite his leadership in USA for Africa and the engaging groove of “Heal the World,” because I couldn’t trust an artist who sang of self-respect on stage and did violence to his face at home.
So I was stunned when Kobe Bryant noted at the memorial service that Michael held the Guinness Book of World Records title for the greatest charitable giving by a pop star. Finally: from one to whom much was given much was given back. Asaph’s dilemma is worsened by the emergence of this unique man-child, one who is arrogant, always at ease, increasing in riches, but also among the pure at heart. I needed the humanizing of Michael that the memorial provided; in such events we experience the world at its most forgiving: “Therefore the people turn and praise them and find no fault in them.” Like Asaph, I had to swallow my tendency to judge:
When my soul was
when I was pricked in heart,
I was stupid and ignorant;
I was like a brute beast towards you.
Nevertheless I am continually with you;
you hold my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterwards you will receive me with honor.
On stage at the memorial service, Lionel Ritchie sang “Jesus is Love,” and Stevie affirmed for all that “God is good.” In an interview with WatchMoJo.com, Wonder admits that Michael has been lost, not taken. “If he wasn’t at peace, he’s at peace in the arms of God.” “The most important thing is the music,” he reminds us. “Don’t get hung up in negativity.” Asaph came to the same conclusion. He regains his footing and places himself firmly alongside God.
have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth I desire other than you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever.
This time Stevie was right: the most important thing is the music. When we look around the world’s arenas, we find the E Street Band, the Rolling Stones, and others older than Michael still hitting the boards with vigor. Even his contemporaries Prince and Madonna are able to display trained, robust professionalism for more than fifty shows in a row. From such performers we can learn how to age gracefully with self-respect and in good health. From poor Michael, emaciated and emasculated by what Springsteen once called the “accoutrements of fame,” dragging himself to work and drugging himself to sleep, we can learn nothing but how to find our “portion” where Asaph found his.
I won’t doubt little Paris’s conviction that MJ was a great father, but like all addicts he made choices that were best for him, not for those he loved. Official proclamation that his death was at the hands of another only reinforces our culture’s need to see our heroes as innocent victims. For a while there, Michael seemed more human than he had been during the last thirty years of his life, but this need to resolve him of responsibility for his drug dependence kills all that. In a classic pop culture paradox, Invincible, the title of his least-successful album, will serve as the sign upon his cross.
“Indeed, those who are far from you will perish,” Asaph concludes. The Elvises and the Michaels of all time will be dealt with by God, and their recordings will be enjoyed by fans like us who have made the Lord our refuge.
J. D. Buhl was born the same year as Michael Jackson and learned to slow dance to “Ben.”