We have become a world of necrophiliacs. We love the dead. It is the living we have problems with.
This week’s outpouring of affection for Michael Jackson only reminds me of this irksome trend. It is worth recalling that only minutes before his untimely death, Jackson was routinely referred to as “Jacko” (a fusion of Jackson and wacko) by the world’s media. His record sales had been sliding for years. And on June 25th, he had all the cultural relevance of Duran Duran or Pat Benatar.
Jackson’s long history of bizarre behavior: wearing masks in public, draping his children in blankets, the horrific plastic surgeries that reduced his nose to something akin to a letter opener, his peculiar relationships with young children, and the erection of a personal Neverland made him the constant subject of scorn and ridicule. The Moonwalk, “Thriller”, and his trademark sequined gloves were long forgotten. Jackson had become a sad shadow of the multi-talented child he was in the 1960’s or even of the man who later left such a mark on the 1980’s.
Then he died.
The tributes began pouring in and the lionization reached full zenith. Suddenly his music started flying off the shelves and Jackson’s friends and acquaintances filled the airwaves with heartfelt tributes to his talent and “genius.” Jamie Foxx and Rev. Al Sharpton were soon raising him up as a black leader who broke down walls of racial separation and attracted legions of white and black fans. This cultural amnesia is a bit much.
As I watched the rise of the Jackson cult and listened to the social changes attributed to him, it made me think of those living musical icons that did in fact break the color barrier. If we are looking for artists who attracted white and black fans in a time of racial strife we have to go back decades before Michael Jackson. What about Little Richard? Diana Ross? Chuck Berry? Chubby Checker? Fats Domino? If we could step away from the media induced Jackson hysteria for a moment, perhaps we could find time to pay tribute to these iconic singers who truly instigated social change. All of these artists, incidentally, are still performing.
Why do we wait until people die before we honor them or show them how cherished they are? A friend recently suggested to me that watching beloved performers age only reminds us of our own mortality. Too bad.
It is easy to love the dead, particularly a dead singer. All we have at that point is the music (and we can be sure that they won’t commit any new embarrassing acts in public or disfigure themselves further). The image of that person can be safely fixed, set on the shelf of memory, and recalled in the happy haze of nostalgia. Reality is always a messier business.
No one is saying that we shouldn’t remember the dead or even honor them-- Jackson included--but as my great grandmother used to say: “Thank me now. After I’m gone, I won’t care.”
So as the world says goodbye to Michael Jackson, my thoughts wander to the many men and women on whose backs he stood. They should be saluted for their talent and their willingness to keep sharing it with us today. Memorials are nice, but gratitude in the present is better.