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Musings on Michael

I know that many people are tired of the media’s focus on Michael Jackson, but I remain fascinated by him. I initially took the news of his passing in stride, as no big deal, but as I continue to reflect on his life and legacy, I have come to understand why so many people are intrigued by the man.

Simply put, there will never be another person like him.

Beyond the dazzling choreography, innovative videos, and classic tunes, more important than the realization he brought the music industry out of a recession with Thriller and remains the template for the last three decades of pop music, Michael Jackson represented so many layers of complexity that we will be dissecting them for years to come.

He was a truly self-defined individual, challenging society’s ideas on race, gender, sexuality, and family. By refusing to recognize any limits to what was possible, he made himself into a truly unique figure who resonated with millions of people around the world.

The most obvious way he played with traditional notions was with regard to race. Born a chocolate-hued black boy with a gorgeous afro, over the years he straightened his hair and gave himself a skin tone paler than most white people, raising all kinds of questions about racial identity. Was he black? Was he white? Depending on your answer, did he behave in the manner “expected” of his race?

What about his gender presentation? While androgyny has been a staple of the arts for a long time, Jackson personalized it in a way that made David Bowie and Prince’s attempts seem like child’s play. With his fashion choices, physical alterations, and lack of typically macho identifiers, a common joke was that Jackson had turned himself into a woman.

As a gay man, I looked at the rumors on Jackson’s sexuality with great interest. Could arguably the most famous man in the world have been gay? Dating back to the 1970s, there was speculation that he was gay, even among his family. It was not just his admiration of Diana Ross, his expressive dancing (the main “evidence” given for Hugh Jackman’s alleged homosexuality), or his sensitive nature. His general aura led to people describing him as “unique,” “different,” and “special,” code words often used by people who don’t want to acknowledge that someone is gay.

Fred Phelps, one of the country’s most notorious homophobes and a man always eager to get into the spotlight, has sent out a news release stating that his Westboro Baptist Church will be staging a protest at “fag Michael Jackson’s” funeral. Phelps dispensed with the niceties and called Jackson what many people thought him to be. I’ve found it revealing that some African-Americans downplay the possibility of Jackson being gay, comparing him to Luther Vandross in that his sexuality didn’t matter as long as it wasn’t publicly acknowledged, which only means their support was contingent on being closeted.

Much has been made of the fate of Jackson’s three children. While I do not know whether he was the biological father of his kids, I can say his concept of family reminded me of the way some LGBTs organize their families because he seemed to believe more in a self-defined family unit more than relying on blood relatives. If he is not the father, I think it’s an even stronger rejection of the traditional family model, since he was raising children that weren’t “rightfully” his and doing so outside the nuclear construct. As most people familiar who observed them have spoken of Jackson’s nurturing of the kids, and their love for him, it seems he was successful despite those who insist that a man and a woman are necessary to raise a happy child, which is the main justification cited for banning LGBT adoption.

Ultimately, I believe MJ’s life is a cautionary tale with two major themes: the risks of getting everything you think you want, and the price of not dealing with your personal issues. Jackson wanted to be recognized as the best and the biggest in all his endeavors. He achieved success beyond his wildest dreams, but despite his riches and fame, he never seemed to be happy.

This is where Jackson is very much a tragic case. Damaged from childhood and placed in circumstances very few people could relate to, he was a prime candidate for some type of counseling. But instead of taking the time to work on himself, Jackson lost himself in countless surgeries, extravagant spending, an unusual social life, and drug abuse. In a way, these choices showed Jackson was more normal than most realized. Many people do not take mental and emotional health seriously, preferring to think they can control their demons through will power and enough diversions. Within the LGBT community, there are lots of people trying to cover up their pain with unhealthy practices masquerading as “fun” and “partying.” In Jackson’s case, the things he thought were solutions turned into problems that made his life more difficult, and likely contributed to his death. If people learn anything from Jackson’s life and death, I hope it is the realization that if you don’t take care of your issues, they will take care of you!

From “Blackout” for 7/6/09 by Anthony Rucker


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