Last Thursday night, my iPhone — which only works intermittently in the hills of Litchfield County, CT, and only then if you stand in the exact right spot in the house — buzzed to indicate a text message. I looked down. “Michael Jackson died :(” read the message, sent by a colleague and a good friend (the Radical’s agents are everywhere.)
Wow, I thought: and only three days after Judy Garland.
It is good there is no internet where I was, otherwise I would have spent the rest of the evening on my computer looking for the very few details that were (and still are) available. I also missed most of the relentless tributes, as there is no television in this little retreat either. Friday morning I did decide that I needed a New York Times, so I went to the grocery store out in Northford, CT, where I have shopped since about 1986. The woman at the check-out station was weeping, tears rolling down her face as she rang up my purchases efficiently. “Pretty bad, huh?” I said, gesturing at her grief by handing over the newspaper with its huge picture of Michael on the front page.
Since Jackson’s sudden death from drug abuse — er, heart failure — a lot of people have compared this moment to Elvis’s death. I remember that moment vividly. Coincidentally, Elvis died on my parents’ wedding anniversary. When we got the news on the radio that was often playing in the kitchen, my mother was visibly distressed. She looked out the window and said, “Elvis and I were almost the exact same age,” which was only sort of true because my mother was two years older then Elvis. It was only years later that I learned the full story: Elvis spent his final minutes on the toilet, and his final days in a darkened bedroom gobbling uppers, downers and Dannon yogurt. Like Michael, Elvis was also preparing for a tour, and part of that process was losing weight so that he could execute those bizarre karate kicks that became his signature, and squeeze into white spangled jumpsuits that were slit to the navel. He believed, according to Peter Guralnick, that because yogurt was advertised as a “diet food” that he could eat cases of it (this is the kind that is flavored with heavily sugared jam, you understand) and still lose weight.
Not just similar in death, Elvis and Michael Jackson are being compared constantly as artists too. Anyone who ever met Michael Jackson is being asked for a tribute, and you won’t be surprised to learn that — despite his obvious lack of good health for over a decade — everyone is shocked as well as devastated. One obvious place to go for a quote is Lisa Marie Presley who was not only Elvis’s daughter, but you may recall, Michael Jackson’s first wife. “I am so very sad and confused with every emotion possible,” she said in Australia’s Herald Sun.
I think the check-out lady in Northford did better.
Both Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley were hugely talented people whose careers stalled. Michael was probably musically more innovative, but it is hard to know what Elvis might have accomplished if he hadn’t been packaged as something that could be sold over and over again to aging female fans willing to pay top dollar to get a sweaty scarf tossed in their faces in Vegas. The tragic, campy comparisons seem more apt: unbelievable grandiosity (sequins, anyone?); endless spending to buy happiness, inner peace and the company of people who didn’t real care about them; an off-key attraction for children (Elvis liked to have little girls in white cotton panties over to play, and the mothers of Memphis happily obliged); and sudden, untimely death aided by an unscrupulous physician who aided and abetted fearsome physical self-abuse.
The other thing they had in common was that people told them what they wanted to hear: eat as much of the yogurt as you want, you’ll get thin. Those children are coming over to play with you, it will be fine, they don’t have parents who will want to be paid off to keep their mouths shut about what goes on at your house.
The people who surrounded Elvis and Michael were the mirror.
I would add Judy to this list of tragic comparisons, and I wonder why she isn’t being mentioned by anyone. Perhaps it is because all of her destructive behavior really was aimed inward, although the fact that her children have lived similarly sordid lives suggests that at least a couple other people got hurt by her excesses. Both Elvis and Judy were binge eaters, binge drinkers and binge dieters, puffing up and slimming down at terrible cost to their psyches and health. Oh, when Dexedrine was in vogue! Both had their careers molded by systems that only the canniest stars were able to use to real artistic advantage.
Michael’s physical changes, and his career, were different. I’ve always been uninterested in his whitening complexion, perhaps because I am a white person who likes to get darker when possible, because I am a historian who knows that Black people come in many shades, or because I really think Michael’s whiteness was more transgendered than transracial. But he was also physically debilitated over the years as he fought being fixed by age, gender and race. Ongoing drug use didn’t help, and neither did the pain and damage inflicted by cosmetic surgeons and dermatologists who did what their client wanted regardless of the effect of chemicals, scrapes and surgeries on his general health and appearance. I saw an item on the Huffington Post only a week ago asserting that what amounted to a partial amputation had been performed on one of Michael’s ears over time, since cartilage was needed repeatedly to rebuild his ruined nose. This may or may not be true, but it can’t be grislier than the truth, when you look at a face that has nearly disappeared in the past two decades. Imagine how much his body must have hurt, even aside from the toll his brilliant dancing must have taken on his ligaments and joints.
But, as with my
views on Judy and Elvis, this is not everyone’s perspective. Fans are lost in grief over the fantasy that was cultivated by Michael Jackson Incorporated. What has seemed to me to be a grossly underweight, mutilated man in terrible psychological and physical pain seemed to his fans to be a star. What I believe was a physically and sexually abused boy, who subsequently visited similar behaviour on children put in his way by greedy parents, was believed to be innocent of any wrongdoing by his fans — and a court — when he said that the children lied. Other incongruities abound. For example:
I saw: A beautiful black child (who was a year younger than me, so I have watched him age) become a shrunken, pasty skeleton with long stringy hair, no affect and no public personality when offstage.
Fans saw: The beautiful person they believed lived inside the ruined body.
I saw: An adult who invited little children to his house constantly, spent the night in bed with them, decorated his property like a theme park to entice them, and who went on television holding hands with a teenaged boy and acted shocked that anyone could be dirty-minded enough to believe that he would “ever hurt a child.” Now if Michael Jackson had been a queer theorist, or a member of an organization advocating the decriminalization of all intimate and sensual relations with children, I would have thought this was interesting, and even radical. But he wasn’t, he was just delusional: all of these observations say “child molester” to me.
Fans saw: Peter Pan; someone who “loved children” and was “really a child at heart.” (Note: this “nice Peter” is the Disney version. The J.M. Barrie version of Peter Pan is dark, jealous and stole people’s children because he hated grown-ups. He also didn’t care what happened to the children as long as they satisfied his outsized ego by admiring him.)
I saw: A person who showed all the signs of having been a fearfully abused child, was terrified of the world, paid women to have children who he then raised in ways that were beyond controlling and eccentric. I wondered to myself, as the children walked around with drapes and veils over their heads, does he even talk to anyone in his family? Because I have got to say, if any of the rest of us did that (much less hold a baby over a hotel balcony in what was, I suspect, not a sober moment) our children would be in foster homes.
Fans saw: A loving father protecting his children from a cruel media who would otherwise have hurt them in some unnamed way.
I could go on, but I won’t. While Michael Jackson was far better able to keep control of his career than either Elvis or Judy, and donated millions of dollars to good causes, he seems to have met the same bitter, sad end as they did. And like them, he has left a pile of troubles behind for other people to solve, as well as weeping fans who look at pictures of their hero and see: