The first late night monologues written since Michael Jackson’s death will be broadcast later today. The tone will almost certainly be different from the usual mentions Jackson receives. Along with Bill Clinton’s promiscuity and George W. Bush’s ignorance, Jackson’s strangeness is a recurring trope in paint-by-numbers American comedy. And not without reason. Even Jackson’s most ardent admirers must concede that he was a disturbed figure. Still, at times I’d find myself troubled by the constant barrage of abuse directed at him.
I don’t blame the comedians, really. I laughed at my fair share of the jokes. Still, as Craig Ferguson explained in his first show after Britney Spears’s self-inflicted balding, comedians should focus their abuse on the powerful. Clinton and Bush can handle it. Maybe it’s also fair to have expected Jackson to handle it. Such a monumentally successful musician may not have seemed like a particularly vulnerable target, but remember the abuse Jackson suffered at the hands of his father, and consider that his oft-mocked Peter Pan syndrome was the result of desperately grasping for the healthy childhood he never experienced.
If one believes Jackson was a child molester, it will of course be far more difficult to sympathize with his plight. I make no claim to knowing the truth, but there’s something to be said for erring on the side of the American judicial system, flawed as it is. If we accept that suspects should be considered innocent until proven guilty, then surely they should be given the benefit of the doubt after being found not guilty. Ultimately, though, this is beside the point. Yes, it would have been nice if the Martin Bashirs of the world had exercised a little more basic human compassion towards the man, but it’s too late to do anything about that. My concern, then, isn’t so much with how Michael Jackson will be remembered as a person, but with how the image of his person will affect how we consider his music.
If something good can come from Jackson’s untimely death, I suspect it will be the divorce of his music from his increasingly bizarre public image. So long as Jackson was alive, periodically making headlines with his utter peculiarity, the image of Michael Jackson in so many minds was of a washed-up, unsightly freak. Now that he’s dead, perhaps a fuller picture of the man’s amazing career will live on.
The impossibly-talented young Michael of the Jackson 5. The most popular entertainer in the world. And yes, the troubled later Michael, too, just as old, drug-addled Elvis hasn’t disappeared from the popular consciousness, but also doesn’t eclipse his early genius. The current posthumous glow surrounding Jackson’s image surely won’t last, and I don’t really think it should. Criminal or not, he wasn’t a saint or a martyr. But he was responsible for some of the greatest music of the twentieth century, and as “Wacko Jacko” disappears from the tabloids, I hope a fuller appreciation of the King of Pop will emerge, for all his faults and virtues.