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Michael Jackson: Society’s Problem?

Saturday, July 04, 2009 at 11:12 AM EDT

It seems a little odd to get caught up in the celebrity hype of the moment, but I do think Michael Jackson’s passing requires a pause for thought. Much about the man can be said to be somehow special, different, or down right weird. But to be honest, much of it was downright tragic, and put the guy in a lose/lose situation.

I’m still not totally sure what it was about Jackson that drew so many people to him. Yes, there was the music, but that alone doesn’t explain the levels of extreme fandom that he experienced, and at times seemed to be so attached to. But there was also his story, one which people were prepared to argue over endlessly, and then turning to what the response to this should be, argue out some more.

My most irksome memories in this regards were the fans who seemed to recognise his vulnerabilities and then do what to me seemed to be the direct opposite to helping the situation. Of course, part of the problem here is that this was a man many knew only through the media, and indeed, most of his fans knew him through the media that they wanted to read, the stuff that flattered him, and maybe the odd interaction. This must be said, of course, if only to explain that much of this writing is more hypothetical than accurate diagnosis (not that I’d be capable of such a thing if Mr Jackson were sat in a chair in front of me).

But how did a man with such talent end up in such a bad state? Or was it merely that he didn’t conform to some definition of normal? Should he, having had such an abnormal upbringing, been forced to act more normal? If so, how? He may have been naturally more talented than most, but it was his nurturing which probably stood out most.

My sense has always been that Jackson’s childhood experiences at the hands of his father put him in a situation where he couldn’t conceive of himself gaining worth in any other way than through performance. That people pushed him so far to perform created a cycle in which he would not have seen any options. Often we perform the role we feel we should, but usually when push comes to shove, once puberty sets in, there’s a tendency to want to discover our own role, but Jackson was often compared to a child, and a child will often play the role they’ve been ascribed by others, even if its “the problem” or “the bully”. Perhaps this was also true of his apparent childishness; I think he saw few positives in developing, especially given the pressures he would have taken on for himself. As a child star, someone arranged everything, and he did what they said.

I had a conversation with a friend just after we heard the news in which one other star came up; Amy Winehouse. Where she is troubled, its clear that she’s being more adult (not that she’s being a sensible adult) in her reactions to fame. I certainly think her father’s demands that people stop buying her records was the direct opposite of Jackson’s father, and probably represented some wisdom, but for the fact he opened himself to such abuse from the media. Jackson probably needed taking out of the media spotlight more than she does. Its an interesting parallel, and I wonder if we were the only people to bring her into the conversation?

What can we take from all of this? The need to allow children freedom to discover their talents, and to keep their options open; that seems a good place to start. A realisation that sometimes people need to be “stood down” in order to get things in perspective? That sometimes we use people without even realising it? I guess this last one is perhaps the hardest to take, because in reality, his fans didn’t want to see themselves as using him, they wanted to see themselves as caring for him, when actually walking away and leaving him to the specialists might have been best. Was he just a victim of society? Probably not, and I certainly wouldn’t want to defend all his actions, but I think society has much to answer for.