As the tributes poured in for the King of Pop, many are asking – who/what exactly killed Michael Jackson? What could have possibly induced a sudden cardiac arrest when dearest MJ was just rehearsing days earlier for the 50-sold-out-concerts-that-would-never-happen (ominously called This Is It)?
Some blamed it on the drugs while others questioned his team of resident doctors and nurses. Was the 50-year-old entertainer of our times pushing himself a little too hard at rehearsals? Has the media played a part in his death too? Perhaps we, as the spectator of the spectacle, the observer of the gaze, the vultures and the voyeurs who feed on the news cycle and fuel the hype that courses through every hungry celebrity, played a sleight of hand in nudging Michael Joseph Jackson off the wall and towards history.
But it can only be the man in the mirror, or rather the Peter Pan boy who refused to grow up, who is responsible for fleeing towards Neverland.
Since the days of Jackson 5 in the late 60s, Jackson was groomed for a bigger stage and music career. He began a solo career in 1971 and went on to register best-selling records over the decades by the millions – Off the Wall, Thriller, Bad, Dangerous and HIStory. His videos (Thriller in particular) made MTV cool, dance moves influenced generations including this writer’s failed attempts in his childhood days to do the moonwalk and philanthropic moves inspired many (read: Heal the World Foundation). Jackson’s talents are a divine gift from God and his influence deeply profound.
But with such overwhelming success, Jackson’s life was evidently put under scrutiny by the media long before Tom Cruise’s couch antics or Britney Spears’ commando acts appeared on the news. Jackson dominated headlines in the 90s with his changing appearances (black to bleach white), botched plastic surgeries, failed marriages to Lisa Marie Presley and Debbie Rowe and the haunting child sexual abuse allegations and trials. As the media incessantly devoted column inches and relentlessly fixed its lens on Wacko Jacko, the singer himself had then retreated into a Disneyland bubble. To be more specific, his Neverland ranch in California complete with amusement park, zoo, museum, pet lama Louie and chimp Bubbles.
Jackson’s appetite for attention and more importantly, love, was insatiable. And so he married Rowe and the couple had kids together via surrogacy, which had the media strangely fascinated. How could a man prone to eccentric behaviour be a responsible and loving father to his children? Was Jackson trying to shower love upon the children that probably evaded him in his childhood? The loony antics only got worse when Jackson dangled his third baby child, Prince Michael Jackson II, over a hotel balcony in Berlin in 2002 for public viewing.
Jackson continued to court controversies and fanned the flames of the media’s attack, especially when he was charged again for child sexual abuse after the famous documentary Living with Michael Jackson aired in 2003 where Jackson was seen holding hands and discussing sleeping arrangements with Gavin Arvizo, who was 13 years old at that point in time. Arvizo later accused Jackson of child sexual abuse, leading to the trial which Jackson was acquitted eventually. To wit, Jackson famously said about his sleepovers with children: “That’s the most loving thing to do, to share your bed with someone.”
Many deduced Jackson’s need for love stemming from his childhood days when he was abused by his disciplinarian father. He tried to find it in his music, in his partnership with Presley and Rowe, in his children, in other children, and ultimately in the media and the public. He crowned himself King so mortals like us could worship and love him back. He altered his looks to appeal to everyone (including his own vanity), but he found none but ridicule.
He lied low in the Gulf, in Ireland but eventually, his love affair with the public sphere ensued and manifested in his comeback attempts to stage 50 sold-out concerts in London and record albums with the likes of Will.i.am and Simon Fuller. Some would argue Jackson did these purely to write off his increasing bad debts but for others, it was evident the man in the mirror never wanted to step out of the limelight.
As I sit watching the news channel broadcasting from a helicopter a live feed of paramedics wheeling Jackson’s body draped in white cloth into the ambulance, I wondered how far we have come in this digital age. Now in his death, the pomp and pageantry continue. Celebrity gossip site TMZ was the first to report minutes after Jackson’s death, which prompted The Los Angeles Times to run a story on how TMZ and the Internet beat television to the news first. It’s an indictment on the vicious media cycle of providing scoop, gossip and news at all costs and a telling example of how celebrity culture is intangibly hinged on the voyeuristic media’s bloodlust. But I digress.
Is there an answer to the whole spectacle? But do we need an answer? Perhaps we can find one in the latest rehearsal video released by the concert promoters AEG. Here, we see Jackson himself in real thin flesh raising hands, twisting hip, marching to the beat and doing the once familiar dance moves – albeit much slower than before with a vivid sense of age and health catching up. At one point, he paused and seemed a little out of breath.
And then the music stopped, lights dimmed and someone, perhaps the stage manager, announced, “Hold for applause, hold for applause and slow umbrella – fade out.”
In loving memory of Michael Joseph Jackson, August 29, 1958 to June 25, 2009.