Both the fascination and frustration in trying to come to grips with Michael Jackson’s sudden death come from the disturbing fact that there were many Michaels.
In considering 40 years of public life, three broad categories emerge: there was Michael, the loveable, talented-beyond-his-years boy singer, who was easily No. 1 among the Jackson 5; there was Michael, the King of Pop, who changed music, videos and fashion with the most successful album ever; there was Michael, the bizarre man-child nicknamed Wacko Jacko for behavior that went from eccentric to possibly criminal to ultimately self-destructive.
The reaction to Jackson’s death among fans, former fans and never-fans, not surprisingly, has run the gamut from grief and shock at his loss to disgust and shock at the outpouring of tributes for someone accused – but never convicted – of unforgivable crimes against children.
How we remember Jackson, in many respects, stems from when and how the music and the boy/man came into our lives – whether the images that stick most are seeing Jackson and his brothers declaring life was easy as ABC on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” watching him moonwalk to “Billie Jean” on the Motown 25th anniversary special, or witnessing news footage of him dangling his infant son from a balcony.
For many, Michael Jackson provided a soundtrack to life, and his death signifies another blow in a losing battle with youth. Others, who never got the music, are resolute that Jackson’s foibles clearly overshadowed his talents.
For most of us, trying to reconcile the part he played in our lives, the lives he may have shattered and how his own life ended, leaves us with a nagging feeling of emptiness that can’t be filled by watching the umpteenth TV retrospective or reading story after story of a saga by parts inspiring, sordid and tragic.
Why is Jackson’s demise such big news when there are many more important things happening in our oft-troubled world? Maybe it's because for those who grew up with his music, his death carries a deep personal connection.
So we ask a not-so-simple question: How will you remember Michael Jackson?
Use the comments section below to share your memories, good or bad, about an unforgettable performer who, like Elvis, left us wanting more.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992.