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Statement on the death of Michael Jackson

Superstars -- they are not like us.

One of the greatest superstars has died. Michael Jackson was a popular culture icon from his pre-teen years until his death, and his legend will continue to grow. He was no mere PT Barnum; Michael was the real thing: a world-historical figure whose fame overshadows sultans, kings, and presidents. He sold three-fourths of a billion albums, but this is secondary. He was, in John Lennon's famous phrasing, "Bigger than Jesus." And as with our image-making of the legend of Jesus, our every hope, desire, revulsion became projected onto his image, his character.

Thus he walked with a burden no one else can know. Michael died too young, and I am so saddened by his death. Others have suggested comparisons to other pop stars, but they can only fall pathetically short. Michael Jackson became like an angel when he performed. In his private world, he was chased by devils. He lived outside himself, never comfortable in his own skin.

Michael does not leave much for us to analyze; his art was not the content of the music or the dance, but the performance itself. Watching TV in 1985, I saw an audience-member cry, "Oh my God, I just saw Michael Jackson!" The man himself was in the distance, glittering in gold and silver.

He was not larger than life -- life was too small for him. Our cultural epoch is in love with fame, tragic drama, and spectacle. As Mick Jagger sang in the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil":

I shouted out,
Who killed the Kennedys?
When after all
It was you and me
In the end, we know that Michael Jackson was not better than us. The man may well have been a pederast and nonviolent sociopath. He very nearly went to jail for years; he was charged with 14 counts of child molestation. But let it be known -- our culture has no gods save the idea of "Michael Jacksons" and those like him. In an era of digital reproduction, "reality" has slid into melodrama. Well-fed and decadent, we hunger for figures unimaginable. A hero with gigantic talents and perhaps even larger character flaws has gone gentle into that good night, and we are all the worse for it.


 
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