Yesterday, Today, & FOREVER The King of Pop

Michael Jackson, the Wounded Messenger

CELEBRITY SCALES: Michael Jackson, the Wounded Messenger: Star-Studded Legal Commentary for the Celebrity Obsessed

the mask finally removed, her tearful goodbye humanized him in the eyes
of millions of adoring fans and even skeptical detractors across the
globe.  Paris Jackson was the poignant conclusion to her father
Michael’s celebrated memorial service.  At the same time, her few words
served as a painful reminder of the conflicted legacy that, as some
proclaim, the greatest entertainer of all time leaves behind in the
wake of his sudden, tragic and mysterious death.  In Michael Jackson’s
passing, this international icon casts as many if not more unanswered
questions about the out of the ordinary life he led behind the curtain
of his private stage.

Michael Jackson at the White House in 1984

Intense speculation over the star’s actual cause of death has ranged
from an accidental overdose to explosive allegations from some family
members of foul play and even murder.  In the later stages of his life,
Jackson was caught in a downward spiral of prescription drug abuse
fostered through a tangled web of star-struck enablers and unscrupulous
members of the medical establishment.  As in his life, Michael Jackson
was engulfed by complex legal and ethical dilemmas even at the precise
moment of his death.  Questions concerning the custody of Jackson’s
three children, whether those children are connected to him
biologically, control over and division of his complex estate, burial
procedures and a final resting place for the star’s remains, use of Los
Angeles public funding for a celebrity laden memorial service at the
Staples Center and countless more controversial issues moved in swiftly
like an ominous and heavy fog in the days and weeks following June 25th.

Upon his death, the Pandora’s box that is Michael Jackson’s
secretive but highly scrutinized life burst open once again and the
media as well as the public’s insatiable appetite for all of the juicy
details immediately became palpable.  The daily headlines read like
vivid medical records.  ‘Michael Jackson’s Autopsy Photo,’ ‘Michael
Jackson’s Hair on Fire,’ ‘Michael Jackson’s Leg Wounds and Needle
Marks,’ and ‘Michael Jackson was Sterile’ are just a few.  Only the
most imaginative fiction writer could create a story with such high
drama and sordid twists and turns.  Even with all of its tabloid
entertainment value, it is a monumental disservice to Michael Jackson’s
memory that a thoughtful analysis of his significant cultural
contributions, particularly in the realm of human rights and social
justice, are being obscured in the process of examining his death and
now his corpse.

Through his prolific body of work, advocacy initiatives and
multi-million dollar charity efforts, Michael Jackson raised
international awareness and support for some of the most complex and
timeless issues confronting the human condition.  AIDS, cancer, famine,
homelessness, gang violence, racism, totalitarianism, environmental
degradation, child abuse, violations of animal rights, restrictions on
freedom of speech and other infringements upon basic civil liberties
are just some of the difficult subjects Jackson tackled by leveraging
the power of his celebrity.  Michael Jackson’s intuitive understanding
of the problems besetting the human ecological system was uncanny and
uncharacteristic for any entertainer close to his magnitude.

Many have been so dazzled by Jackson’s masterful showmanship and the
consistent controversy surrounding his life and death that it would be
easy not to recognize the overarching social and political themes
embodied in his music, videos and public interviews.  The intense
emotional pull, messages and raw feelings that reverberate through the
lyrics and sometimes disturbing video imagery of songs such as “They Don’t Care About Us,” “Heal the World,” "Earth Song," and “Man in the Mirror” are gut-wrenching.  A deeper analysis of Michael Jackson’s work
reveals an individual with a burning concern for improving the lives of
the disadvantaged and persecuted around the world.  The passion and
verve with which Jackson digs his hands into the soil and grasps the
trees in his video for “Earth Song,” an operatic piece where he
addresses environment and animal welfare,  is a reflection of a leader
of humanity who cares deeply about the issues he is challenging.

Global events in the weeks surrounding Jackson’s death alone
directly mirror the complex problems for which he attempted to raise
international awareness.  In Iran and before the world’s eyes, civilian
demonstrations were squashed and innocent victims like the young Neda
Agha-Soltan brutally murdered by instruments of a totalitarian state. 
In Washington, D.C., a white supremacist motivated by pure hate
attempted a killing spree at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum,
murdering an African American security guard in his rampage.  In North
Korea, U.S. journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee were unjustly sentenced
to twelve years of hard labor to merely serve as international
bargaining chips for an evil dictator.  Michael Jackson spoke out
loudly against these forms of racism and repression and attempted to
ignite our passion to prevent the continuance of such abuse, neglect
and discrimination.  How are we now missing this message when it is
even more crucial for it to be absorbed into the public mind?  Not only
do Michael Jackson’s cries of awakening continue to be ignored but his
reputation continues to be smeared.

With the current fixation on the gruesome details surrounding
Jackson’s physical demise, we have lost focus on the social relevance
of Michael Jackson in our cultural timeline.  Jackson’s symbol has the
power to force what might be a difficult and uncomfortable period of
public self-reflection.  What progress has been made on the global
humanitarian and civil rights issues that Jackson brought to light for
the masses?  What realistically still needs to be accomplished in each
of these realms to actually make future progress?  These are the
crucial questions that need to be contemplated in the context of
Michael Jackson’s death.

Many may ask why this controversial figure, a man who
has been the subject of intense criticism and public backlash, should
be given such gravity in framing public discourse over the day’s most
important topics.  Sometimes it takes one person, not just a political
or spiritual leader, who stands out symbolically from the rest of
society, to make that society reflect on the principles that it follows
and the values it embraces.  Jackson, throughout his life and in his
death, has been ridiculed and revered, vilified and vaunted.  In many
respects, his story represents the highest possible highs and the
lowest possible lows that life can present to a human being.  Michael
Jackson’s tremendous talent, success, wealth and public adoration were
at odds with his extreme loneliness, fear, addiction and destruction of
reputation by public opinion.  In the end though, Michael Jackson was
much more than an entertainer.  His contributions to the entertainment
field are no doubt profound.  However, it is his broad cultural impact
that truly transcends economic, social, political, racial, religious
and generational barriers.  Jackson rose from being simply a magical
performer into becoming a humanitarian of historic import.  He was a
modern day messenger, a visionary storyteller who raised the level of
consciousness for citizens across national boundaries.  This level of
contribution is what the social contract demands of those who are
blessed with natural gifts, power and wealth.  Shouldn’t we then
embrace and support people who are destined for this life mission
instead of deriding them?  As history progresses and Jackson’s symbol
and work are analyzed in conjunction with the unfolding of human
events, the important cultural relevance of his persona will be
uncovered.  Like a piece of classic Greek literature that embodies
timeless themes of human striving and suffering, Michael Jackson’s
canon and celebrity will come to hold a similar place in the modern day
cultural pantheon.  Why then was it necessary to shoot the messenger?

Martin Bashir’s highly controversial 2003 TV documentary, ‘Living
with Michael Jackson’ is just one of the many examples of the ways in
which Jackson was unfairly portrayed in the media.  The documentary was
a PR nightmare for the star.  Bashir’s video interviews and commentary
were cleverly edited as to purposely paint Jackson as a megalomaniac
child molester.  The film focused, in a highly negative manner, on the
abuse Jackson suffered as a child at the hands of his father, the
rumors behind his drastic physical transformation, his intense
friendships with young boys, the nature of his past romantic
relationships and questions concerning the genetic lineage of his
children, among other sensitive topics.  Bashir conveniently cut out
footage that presented a countervailing impression of Jackson. 
Bashir’s documentary and Michael Jackson’s subsequent rebuttal, in the
form of a TV special hosted by Maury Povich, provide a candid, never
before seen glimpse into what made this man tick.  In many respects,
Michael Jackson was a lonely soul who found the greatest comfort
isolated behind the gates of his Neverland ranch and in the company of
animals, children, carnival rides and opulent possessions.  In the last
years of his life, Jackson became reclusive to the point that he was
unable to function even within celebrity society due to the immensity
of his fame and the parasitic attention drawn by even the briefest
public appearance.  Examining these interviews, it becomes clear that
Michael Jackson is one of the most misunderstood figures in modern day
popular culture.

The incessant media backlash against Michael Jackson throughout his
career and now in his death is driven by the fact that Jackson, as a
symbolic figure, forces us to look in the mirror and face the difficult
and sometimes intractable problems of our society and in ourselves that
we may not want to acknowledge.  How dare he?  Jackson brilliantly
shines light on civilization’s accomplishments and failures in their
most extreme forms.  To be repulsed by the drastic transformation of
his face was to simultaneously recognize the excessiveness of a beauty
obsessed culture that allows money to change even the most fundamental
components of our DNA.  When looking and commenting on his mask,
weren’t we also secretly acknowledging both the literal and figurative
masks that we sometimes hide behind?  Ironically, Michael Jackson’s
physical changes led him to be branded as an “oddity” or “freak” by a
media culture that promotes physical perfection through any means
necessary.  As Jackson proclaimed during his interviews with Bashir,
“Plastic surgery was not invented for Michael Jackson!”

The child molestation charges brought against Jackson first in 1993
and again in 2005, for which he was skewered and roasted by the media
and public, were baseless extortion attempts fueled by the petty greed
and jealousy of his accusers.  Despite settling the 1993 case and being
acquitted of the 2005 charges, Michael Jackson’s commercial appeal and
public image were severely damaged by the allegations.  The child
molestation charges against Jackson represented a modern day witch hunt
in its most base form.  Unfortunately for Jackson, the hunt was not
localized to Salem but played out globally through the aid of modern
media technology.  The molestation charges were fueled by likely
feelings of inadequacy in the parents of the alleged child victims who
were so enamored by Jackson.  Perhaps these parents did not believe
that they could compete with the love and material fantasy that Michael
Jackson provided to their children which caused them to lash out in
desperation.  Jealousy combined with greed is highly combustible.  The
media’s depiction of Michael Jackson as a plastic surgery obsessed
eccentric made him an easy target and an unsympathetic victim.  It just
wasn’t believable that someone that acted and looked like him could be
kind, sensitive, compassionate and loving.  What was the motivation
behind it all?  What was wrong with him?  There had to be something
askew.  What if Michael Jackson’s motivation was simply to give hope to
those less fortunate?   Was all of this then just the senseless
destruction of a human being to satisfy our insecurities and quell our
fears of the unknown and misunderstood.

As we reflect upon Michael Jackson’s life and now death, it is
difficult not to feel sad for the man and view him in a tragic light. 
With all of his power, wealth and fame, he now lies before us like a
bird crushed after being pelted repeatedly by outsized stones. 
Dejected, Jackson continued to turn inward, fearful of what the world
he cared so deeply about changing for the better was throwing at him. 
The drugs just served as an opiate to the pain of an artist and
humanitarian that was overburdened by a mission that he didn’t believe
he accomplished.  Addicted, it was the greed of those surrounding
Michael Jackson who continued to indulge his desires out of
self-preservation.  The numbness of the painkillers relieved the ache
caused by knowing that despite what he sought to give and change in the
society around him, the burden of his creations and the scathing
critique it engendered had become too overwhelming for one person to
sustain.  Michael Jackson was a modern Sisyphus, the loin clothed man
condemned to repeatedly pushing a rock up a mountain only to see it
roll back down.  Sadly though, our Sisyphus collapsed under the weight
of his struggle.

Michael Jackson was inflated to the position of a pop deity, a
mythical figure, only to be crucified and stoned by the media gods who
created his success.  His bold eccentricities lied outside of the norm
of standard, socially acceptable behavior but were they necessarily
illegal or wrong?  No.  Most of Michael Jackson’s actions were
unconventional yet, at the same time, wasn’t the grandeur of his
celebrity and global status beyond anything that modern day culture has
ever witnessed?  His grandeur, his eccentricity, each influenced and
exaggerated the other.

It is undeniable that Michael Jackson’s immense celebrity and wealth
allowed him to remove himself from mainstream society and observe the
world from a privileged vantage point.  Sometimes though, it takes that
fortunate but isolated position to be able to make the least polluted
social observations and ultimately produce the most effective societal
commentary through art.  Throughout history, the work and lives of multiple artists have been ridiculed and scorned by the public during their heyday, only to be placed posthumously into the canon of the Greats.  It is without doubt that Michael Jackson will, in due course, garner this same level of critical acclaim as an artist and most importantly, as a humanitarian.

Matt Semino is a New York attorney and legal
commentator.  He is a graduate of Columbia Law School , Cornell
University and is a Fulbright Scholar.

Follow Matt Semino on Twitter: @MattSemino

Contact Matt Semino at

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