Michael Jackson, and why we liked him so much more after he was dead
Since time immemorial, we've liked our artists deceased. The fame, the money, you may experience those in your lifetime. But the respect, that only comes after you die--preferably young and in an unexpected way. From Vincent van Gogh to Robert Johnson, the list on artists who passed on to the next life penniless and went on to enjoy centuries of posthumous adulation stretches on endlessly.
Michael Jackson was certainly far from penniless when he died a year ago today, but there's no denying he was short on respect. The sheer volume of his bizarre behaviors (remember the oxygen chamber?) was enough to make him notorious, but it was the severity of those behaviors (two child molestation charges) that made him downright embarrassing. The day he died, though, our attitude changed: He was a hero! Why is that?
As human beings, we have a hard time separating the artist from the art. It's the reason celebrity gossip magazines like TMZ even exist: Sure, we like what they do, but who are they? What is it that makes them able to do things we can't do--and does that make them better than us? And if so, how can we feel better than them?
The level of an artist's fame is directly proportionate to the amount of stuff we want to know about that artist, and there comes a point when we know so much about that artist that the figure becomes inseparable from the product. As Amelie Gillette pointed out in "The Hater," there's no way anymore to watch Angelina Jolie the actress and think of anyone other than Angelina Jolie the person--and with that association comes every opinion you have about Angelina Jolie, the possibly anorexic wife of Brad Pitt and mother of 70 adopted children or whatever that number is now.
Bearing that in mind, let's couple another rule to that equation: The level of a person's fame is directly proportionate to how messed up that person is. Adorable child actress Lindsay Lohan achieves fame and becomes a cocaine-addled DUI machine. Once fresh-faced and innocent, Britney Spears hits the big time and suddenly can't exit a car without her vagina popping out. Society lends famous people a license to do whatever they want, and just like normal humans, when handed that license, famous people take it.
Michael Jackson was the king of that rule, and it only takes a little pop psychology to figure out why: Jackson appeared in the spotlight when he was just five years old. About the most ambitious thing most five-year-old boys do is find 30 grasshoppers in the back yard and put them in a used Gatorade bottle; Jackson was headlining sold-out arenas, tied to a contract with Motown and making gobs of money for his business-savvy father. The Neverland Ranch, his inappropriately close relationships with young children--it's not hard to conclude these were pathetic attempts on Jackson's part to recapture a childhood innocence that fame cheated away from him.
And we judged him for those attempts. Oh, how we judged him. But then he died, and we didn't have to think about that anymore.
And that's why it's so much easier to love artists when they're dead. All the drug abuse, the rampant egos, the personal weirdness, all those bizarre behaviors get taken out of the equation when the star is no longer around to behave in those ways. The art is finally untied from the reality of the artist, and that's how we remember them: by what they made, not what they did.