The Trouble With Greatness

From Ike Turner to Van Gogh, Michael Jackson wasn’t the only artist tarnished by his off-stage drama.

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Now that Michael Jackson is gone, but not yet buried—notwithstanding last week’s poignant send-off—what are we to make of his legacy? Will he be remembered as the man who created “Thriller”—revolutionizing pop music and transforming the music video into a work of art? Or will we remember him as Wacko Jacko, he of the creepy court cases and the constantly morphing face?

Or will we remember him for all of the above?

At Jackson’s funeral, Al Sharpton compared him to Martin Luther King Jr. Meanwhile, Bill O’Reilly pronounced himself “nauseous” from the media coverage, declaring, “Now that he’s dead, he’s a hero. How did that work?”

Both of them miss the point. The reality is, Jackson’s legacy was a lot more complicated than either/or, black or white, good/evil. Like a lot of artists, his legacy will reside in the in-between, in the messy gray area that constitutes reality beyond the eulogies. We should be wary of elevating the King of Pop—or anyone, for that matter—to sainthood status. But nor should we dismiss four decades’ worth of marvelous music because of mistakes the man made in his personal life.

Some of the world’s best works of art were created by deeply troubled souls. Van Gogh had issues. Virginia Woolf was suicidal. Ike was a grade-A asshole to Tina. Coltrane did smack. Roman Polanski fled the U.S. after he was convicted of statutory rape of a 13-year-old many years ago. His crime doesn’t make The Pianist any less beautiful, any less compelling.