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Remembering Michael Jackson—but how?

by Jay Gabler

June 25, 2014

On August 16, 1982, Michael Jackson was at Westlake Recording Studios in L.A., making the album that would become Thriller. While the self-proclaimed King of Pop laid tracks for the record that would define his career and become the best-selling album of all time, the world was marking the fifth anniversary of the day the King of Rock and Roll, overcome by overwhelming doses of prescription drugs, died tragically young—and in supreme indignity—on the floor of his Graceland bathroom.

The public couldn't see that bathroom, but they could see much of the rest of Graceland, which had been opened as a museum in June of that year—a wildly popular and canny decision by Presley's ex-wife Priscilla, one in a series of moves that turned Elvis's estate into the model of a celebrity estate that's both financially profitable and a perennial buoy to the reputation of the deceased.

By the time of his death, Elvis's reputation needed a lot of buoying. His final years were marked by artistic laziness, erratic behavior, and obvious drug abuse that Presley didn't publicly acknowledge as such, portraying himself as an anti-drug crusader while seemingly deluding himself that the abuse of street drugs was on a completely different moral and legal plane than a deadly addiction to pharmaceutical barbiturates.

Strange but true stories about the decline of Elvis Presley included his proclivity for discharging firearms into television sets, his lying in bed all day with beautiful young women in utter chasteness due to the drug-induced decimation of his libido, and the surpassingly bizarre White House visit at which he surprised Richard Nixon and talked the President into giving him a badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.

It had been a sad, wasteful end to the life of a man who had been the most famous face of the rock and roll revolution, coming out of rural Mississippi and helping to reinvent popular music for the recorded, amplified, urban world in which we now live. After making some of the most freeing music of his time, Elvis seemed to become trapped in his own celebrity—first squandering the 60s on a series of quick-buck movies and soundtracks, then spending the 70s so addled that by the end, he could hardly be induced to so much as come downstairs and sing even when recording equipment was installed in his rec room.

While Michael Jackson's career didn't coincide with the kind of transformative zeitgeist Elvis's did, Jackson's musical talent handily surpassed that of not just Elvis but nearly every pop musician who's come along since. His unique gifts apparent from a young age, Jackson could sing in league with Motown's best, could dance the pants off even his idol James Brown, could write his own classic material (as The New Yorker's Bill Wyman points out, songwriting remains Jackson's most under-appreciated talent), and—though, like Presley, Jackson never realized his dream to be a great actor-singer in the mold of Sinatra—his embrace of video served him well in the MTV era.

After the world-beating success of Thriller, though, Jackson's life began to unspool in a manner eerily similar to the way Presley's had—ultimately reaching heights of weirdness that made even the bloated and bedazzled late-period Elvis look positively mundane.

Less than a year after his electrifying performance on the Motown 25 special—perhaps the artistic pinnacle of his career—Jackson arrived at the Grammys to collect a pile of Thriller trophies, escorting Brooke Shields on one arm and carrying Emmanuel Lewis in the other. By Bad (1987), Jackson's face had been very visibly altered by plastic surgery; and when "Black or White," the lead single from Dangerous (1991), was released with a video that featured Macauley Culkin rapping and Jackson grabbing his crotch before bashing a sedan, it was apparent to all that Michael Jackson fandom would never again be an uncomplicated matter.

For the next decade and a half, Jackson remained an object of the world's fascination—but not, unfortunately, fascination with his music. He was twice accused of child molestation, settling the first claim (1993) out of court for a staggering sum that was seen by many as an implicit admission of guilt. In the second case (2003), he was acquitted by a jury in a trial that put his extremely eccentric life on public display—not that it had ever really been private. He fathered three children in circumstances ranging from unusual to downright mysterious, he flew around the world in financial freefall (despite having made the enormously remunerative decision to buy the majority of the Beatles' song catalog in 1985), and he had two short, odd marriages that included a brief union with Elvis's daughter Lisa Marie.

On June 25, 2009, during rehearsals for a series of comeback shows to be titled This Is It—the title alluding to Jackson's intention for them to be his final performances before retirement—the King of Pop was brought down by the same pitfall that had claimed Elvis: an increasing taste for prescription drugs, provided by cooperative physicians who professed to be protecting the artist's health.

Today marks five years since Michael Jackson died at the age of 50, bringing an end to one of the most remarkable careers and saddest lives in popular music. Unlike Graceland, Jackson's property Neverland Ranch has not been opened to the public; it remains in limbo, due to various financial and legal complications that reflect the complications of Jackson's life and legacy.

Compared to the last decades of Jackson's life, Elvis's final years look almost triumphant. When the public was asked to vote on whether the early Elvis or the late Elvis should be preserved on a postage stamp, the young Elvis won—but at least there was a late Elvis in credible contention. The jumpsuit-and-cape Elvis, peculiar as he was, still bore evidence of Presley's enduring charisma and flair for entertainment. Jackson never managed to reinvent himself as Presley did; instead, his life became a series of diminished, diluted manifestations of the Gloved One who reined supreme in 1983.

Jackson is being celebrated today, for the same reasons he's always been justly celebrated. He was the world's top-selling artist in the year of his death, as music buyers jumped to add his immortal hits to their collections. The Jackson depicted in projects like his "new" album and video is the early Jackson, the Jackson it was easy to love. We hear his voice in a comfortable pop R&B idiom, we see signature moves executed by Jackson and his young acolytes in joyous performances that are stripped of context.

This sort of tribute—appropriate and well-deserved as it may be—not only turns away from the unpleasant realities of Jackson's later life, it also elides the thornier aspects of the Michael Jackson we thought we knew when he was young and beautiful.

The reality of Michael Jackson's life is that he was raised with an abusive father who exploited Michael's talent by spurring he and his brothers to an early fame that both thrilled and terrified the young boy. Michael's solo triumph with 1979's Off the Wall freed him from the Jackson 5 and put his career on its own, even steeper, trajectory, but his family remained a source of stress and tumult in Jackson's life. Having grown up without a model of a healthy adult relationship—and, further, disgusted by the casually carnal encounters his father and brothers freely indulged in on the road—he became a man whose most invested relationships were with children, both others' and his own. Whether or not those relationships in fact crossed into molestation, only Jackson's most ardent defenders would describe them as entirely healthy.

Many of Jackson's troubles were uniquely his own, but others were shared with celebrities like Elvis: the weight of impossible expectations created by your gift and by your early successes, the complications of managing relationships with family and friends when you're worth as much as Midas, the peculiar loneliness of peerless celebrity. In his most poignant description of this condition, Jackson said that he rarely felt he could truly know people, because "when they see Michael Jackson, they're not themselves any more."

Though Elvis preferred hoisting handguns with his adult buddies to having water balloon fights with children, Presley too was known to retreat into a boyish, cloistered world where he could forget that he was the King. In some ways, it's easy to imagine that Jackson's isolation in the spotlight would have felt familiar—perhaps even oddly comfortable—to the child of Elvis Presley. On the day of Michael Jackson's death, when his 11-year-old daughter Paris was crying, confused, and angry among the bumbling adults trying desperately to resuscitate her father, the scene must have been sadly reminiscent of that August afternoon at Graceland when nine-year-old Lisa Marie had to be held back at Elvis's bedroom door, sobbing and demanding to see her dad.

The creepy amusement park at Neverland is already gone; Paris has replaced it with a zen garden. If the property is ever opened to the public, it seems likely that it will be further sanitized, a monument to the King of Pop as his family wishes him to be celebrated. Due to California law respecting the disposal of human remains, Jackson is unlikely to be re-interred at Neverland as Elvis was at Graceland; still, both sites are now places of mourning, as they were for their owners in life.

Elvis Presley bought Graceland for his mother, and preserved it in part as a monument to her. Michael Jackson created Neverland Ranch for children, to give them "the childhood I never had." He mourned his own lost childhood there, and later lamented the loss of his dream to heal himself by healing the world. Today, Michael Jackson fans around the world will be sharing memories of Jackson, and even many of those who don't mourn the man will nonetheless be celebrating his musical artistry.

"If I could," said Jackson once, wistfully, "I would sleep on the stage." Though Jackson's physical remains lie at Forest Lawn Cemetery in California, his eternal memory, it seems, will indeed rest on stage—in that spotlight he occupied like none who came before or since.

Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.