I never got the joke. Not the Wacko Jacko puns I was supposed to riff on as a tabloid headline writer. Not the corny late-night TV gags I was supposed to sneer along with. Certainly not the glee with which everyone gawked and cackled at Michael’s grotesque appearance and Peter Pan fantasies. I never found any of it the least bit funny. To me, the King of Pop’s descent into madness was more familiar than bizarre; he was more everyman than carnival freak.
Sure, he was a spectacle. Michael could put on a show like nobody else, and so it went with his self-destruction. But at the core of it all, to my eyes anyway, was a glaring inability to distinguish between self-definition and self-mutilation—and that’s hardly unusual. We’ve all had those periods, hopefully brief and contained, when we’re the only ones who can’t see how much we’re hurting ourselves. I’ve lived it. Haven’t you? Michael’s fugue was unique in scale alone.
It was also more tragic irony than farce for me because his rise and fall seemed rooted in the same gift: a refreshingly unselfconscious absurdity. He reigned not just over pop music, but also over the band of free spirits that defined late ‘70s and ‘80s pop culture. Prince, Madonna, Freddie Mercury. Pick your icon. They were united by a willingness to let it all hang out. Even the hip-hop personalities were more camp than street. They were all drag queens of a sort, giddy in their exaggerated expressions of an otherwise inexplicable inner self.
So like countless 30-somethings, I holed up in a favorite bar on the night the news broke and drank and danced the memories back to life. We huddled around iPhones to watch and rewatch videos. To pine for the days when cool was defined by a grown man in silver-glitter socks and tight high-water pants. When musical gangs choreographed their fights rather than angrily posturing at one another. When hip was neither ironic nor tough but earnest and playful and glam and beautiful. To hell with thugs and players. I want pretty young things back.
But now the king is as dead as the unrestrained kingdom he ruled. Some say he was gone a long time ago. Maybe. I say he was lost, like so many of us, in a search for self-expression that had veered terribly off course. I never gave up hope on his return, and I still won’t. No, I’m not claiming some sort of “Elvis Lives” conspiracy. Michael’s life is gone for good, but I’m waiting for the day when his cultural legacy comes moonwalking back into the mainstream.
Kai Wright is a senior writer for The Root.