Last week, as the news of Michael Jackson’s death spread, I noticed that people’s reactions were very different. I got word that he was in the hospital on my Facebook news feed and immediately flipped back and forth between CNN and ABC News, waiting for the rumors of his death to be confirmed. I kept track of my Facebook friends’ comments – some were very empathetic, while others were much less so. One friend accused the King of Pop of “getting what was coming to him” and another said she couldn’t stop crying.
I had never seen so many Facebook status updates at once (well, other than the night of last year’s November election). I felt I had to say something but realized that I didn’t know where my allegiances lay relative to this strange dichotomy between utter devotion and condemnation. So my confused self changed my Facebook status to “music will certainly miss Michael Jackson.” I know, I know. It was weak.
But what is the correct way to react to the death of a very complex person? Like so many others, I adore Michael Jackson’s music, admire his philanthropy, and respect the way he revolutionized the music game. However, while I want to ignore what one news station called “the idiosyncrasies” of his personal life—like it seems so many people have done—I cannot.
So the overarching question becomes: to what extent should we be able to separate the artist from his art?
I was listening to an R&B radio station yesterday that was asking listeners to call in and join the discussion of MJs death. One caller said something that stuck with me: that with the expansion of the media, it is much harder for entertainers (and I guess this also includes governors, as we’ve seen in recent news reports) to distance their careers from their personal lives. Michael Jackson was an extreme example of that. The media suffocated him and anything and everything was told to the rest of the world. While I am convinced that Michael Jackson was, at the very least, a little eccentric, it is probably unfair to say that his lifestyle as a successful artist is an anomaly. Many musicians from much earlier decades had all kinds of serious personal issues. But unlike the King of Pop, these musicians’ legacies benefited from much looser media scrutiny and these personal issues were backstaged.
This morning, Michael Jackson made history yet again. He is the first artist to sell over 1 million song downloads in a week. There is no question that his death has spiked a renewed interest in his music. In fact, maybe the mass attention to Jackson’s music over his personal life is a testament to how powerful his artistry was and still is to the world.
We know that music was Michael Jackson’s escape from his personal life. For the world, it seems to also be a way to avoid who he was a person. It will be a challenge figuring out how to reconcile this complicated man with his amazing art. I am not sure what is right, but I do know that his music was too good to give up and his massive contribution to our culture is too powerful to ignore.