There have always been large-scale funerals for entertainers, from Rudolph Valentino to Elvis Presley. But never has there been anything like the one for Michael Jackson, attended by tens of thousands and viewed on TV by millions. Nor were these other celebrity deaths the number one news story, for over a week straight.
On the face of it, this is understandable. After all, Michael Jackson had been popular since the late nineteen-sixties, initially as a member of the Jackson Five, before going solo. His album “Thriller” still holds the record for album sales. He was truly an international sensation. But that in itself is not seem sufficient to explain the sudden apotheosis of Michael from pop-star to musical demigod. There’s something odd about all of this.
Yes, Michael Jackson was undoubtedly a very talented singer and dancer, but there have many been others, at least as good, if not much more so. That list should include, for example, James Brown, Janis Joplin, Marvin Gaye, Hank Williams, Roy Orbison, and Ray Charles. Then there were extremely popular singers and dancers from earlier eras, including Al Jolson, Fred Astaire, Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and Elvis Presley. Indeed, there have probably been hundreds of entertainers as good if not better than Michael Jackson. This is not intended to denigrate his musical accomplishments; it’s just meant to consider his career in a more realistic perspective. The deaths of these other entertainers had also been in the news, but nowhere near to the extent than was the news about Michael Jackson’s death. Apparently his death hit a nerve in the collective psyche. But what is that nerve?
Discovering a Clue to the Mystery
The day after Michael Jackson died, I ran into a friend whose sentiments offered me a clue to the mystery. He found it very sad that Michael died just when he was on the verge of a comeback. He explained to me that Michael had even hired Lou Ferrigno, star of the film The Hulk, to be his personal trainer. And Michael had been practicing everyday with the other dancers, for his upcoming London concert series. So there lies the sense of tragedy.
Thornton Wilder expressed this same pathos in his classic 1927 novel “The Bridge Over San Luis Rey.” Wilder explores the lives of five people, each of whom had suffered through life’s trials and tribulations. Now they were about to set forth in a new direction. Crossing the bridge was symbolic, in that sense, of their important life transition. But, they never made it, for the bridge collapsed and they perished.
John Lennon perceptively said that “Life is what happens to us, while we’re making plans.” It can also be rightly said that death is what happens to us, while we’re making plans. After all, we are always making plans about something or other. Death must, therefore, interrupt us when we’re in the middle of things. Nor can we defer it with a game of chess, as did the knight in Bergman’s film.
When the final interruption arrives, amidst a life transition, it seems all the more poignant. Michael had been down on his luck and his reputation badly tarnished, mostly due to his own outrageous behavior. His comeback was not just about returning to popularity. It had an aura about it of rebirth and self-renewal, and not just artistically, but in a moral and religious sense. Yes, in the eyes of his fans, Michael seemed to be getting his act together, both the one on stage and the one inside of him. Whether or not he truly was is another story. At least the public felt that way about him retrospectively. It is, of course, easier to forgive a person’s transgressions and view him in a more favorable light, after he is gone. Here is the same pathos that the untimely death of Princess Diana evoked for millions of fans, the sense of an unhappy person’s voyage to a new life being tragically aborted.
Discovering the Raw Nerve
Many people are in the midst of a life transition. There are many, many more who inwardly know that a transition, of some sort, is necessary. The requisite transition might range from shedding ten pounds to launching a new business to becoming a truly good person. Here, then, is why the death of Michael Jackson became a major story, eclipsing even the most serious political news: it reminded us that the bridge we need to cross (i.e., the life transition that we need to undergo) could collapse, with us on it. That is the raw nerve in the collective psyche.
To borrow a metaphor from John Donne, Michael’s mourners heard the bell tolling, but only dimly perceived that it was really tolling for their soon to be lost possibilities. For unless they acted decisively, they too would — as have millions of people before them — plunge into the abyss, without ever having gotten their act together. Thus in weeping for Michael, they were really weeping for themselves.
The cure for this self-indulgent sadness and despair is, of course, to “screw one’s courage to the sticking-post” and — right now, at this very moment — to become the person one needs to become and to do what one needs to do.