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.
The thing is, we give the artists that we love a pass. If we’re not feeling them, we look on with a much more critical eye. I have to admit that I can’t stand R. Kelly. Yes, the man has talent; but no, his music never moved me. So I’ve always been more than a little outraged by the fans that continued to stand by him, despite some mighty troubling allegations of child pornography. (Of which he was acquitted.)
But on the other hand, I absolutely adore Miles Davis. So I pack away my thoughts about him beating his wife and his misogyny, about how he raised a hand to the fabulously elegant Cicely Tyson on more than one occasion. I engage in this little exercise of compartmentalization for one reason only: Because his music has soothed my soul on many a restless night.
Does that make me a hypocrite?
And why can’t we ascribe humanity to the celebrities and artists we either love or we loathe? We put an awful lot of pressure on artists in this 24/7 cycle of nonstop TMZ-style scrutiny. We build ‘em up and knock ‘em down, build ‘em up and knock ’em down. We mock them at the same time that we demand that they be role models writ large, representing all that is good and true, when they’re just regular folks who happen to be really, really good at what they do. We can’t handle it when they fail us with their frailties. But when they die, oh, when they die, then we shower them with adulation and grant them a hero’s send-off. We allow ourselves room for critical thought: Michael was either completely innocent, a victim of money-grubbing haters, or he was a pedophile who should’ve been thrown under the jail. And burbling beneath the surface, there is a disturbing current of racial polarization to the debate. Or, as O’Reilly said, “Why is he being held up as a pillar of the black community when he bleached his skin?”
By the end, it seemed like Michael Jackson’s considerable eccentricities had eclipsed his artistry. It didn’t help that he wasn’t making much music in his later years, so all we had to fixate on was the $20 million settlement, the courtroom circus, the baby dangling madness. Most likely, we’ll never know the truth about what really went down at Neverland. Or the truth about his children’s parentage or any number of other not-so-pretty things associated with his over-the-top life. But we will know this: That he was a troubled soul, a flawed and fragile man. And that along the way, he made some truly beautiful music.
Teresa Wiltz is The Root’s senior culture writer.