To Mourn, or Not to Mourn?

jackson 5

Posted by TERESA

There have been more than the usual number of celebrity deaths this week.  Ed McMahon died earlier this week, and today had the deaths of Farrah Fawcett, after losing her battle with cancer, and more recently, Michael Jackson, of heart failure.

While they all saddened me, as they each in their way took a piece of my childhood with them (I used to say ‘Heeeeeeeeere’s, Johnny!’ all the time when I was little, and made fun of my sister’s ‘Farrah hair’), it was Michael Jackson’s death that prompted me to write something.  Not just because I was a fan of his music, though I was.  I loved his stuff pretty much all the way up to his Dangerous album.  Not just out of nostalgia, though Michael Jackson’s music, be it with the Jackson 5 or solo, was some of the first pop music I ever listened to.

What prompted me to write this was the reactions to his death.  For every person who was posting sad comments on Twitter, or posting old music videos in tribute on Facebook, there was someone else talking about how glad they were he was dead, or how we shouldn’t pretend that he wasn’t a child molester who should be in jail.


What surprised me wasn’t that those reactions existed – Michael Jackson’s always been a controversial figure – but how angry they made me.  While I loved the man’s music, and respected his place in pop culture, I was never a Michael Jackson fanatic.  Truth be told, before today I couldn’t tell you the last time I’d heard a song of his.  (No wait.  I listened to my Jackson 5’s Greatest Hits CD the other day.  Never mind.) Yet every time I saw someone either speaking ill of him, making light of his death or acting as though we should focus only on the man’s flaws, I got angry.  I couldn’t put my finger on why until I started to write this.

Those comments smack of hatefulness and hypocrisy.

First, it isn’t up to anyone to police grief.  If someone is upset about someone’s death, it isn’t your job to tell them they’re wrong for doing it.  Hateful.


Second, imagine this:

You’re born into a large familly with an emotionally (and sometimes physically) abusive father who pretty much pushes you into a music career before you’re remotely near puberty.  This then becomes YOUR LIFE – at the expense of freedom and normal socialization.  It’s as though you’re being punished for being more talented than your other brothers and sisters.  You get older under the constant glare of the spotlight.  There is a solace in music…but on one side your father makes you feel worthless even though you’re the cash cow (Your nose is too big), and on the other you are the BIGGEST STAR IN THE WORLD, which means that you are loved, but impersonally.  You become a well-attended exhibit at the zoo.  You become dehumanized, as any humanity you might have held onto has been replaced with words like “icon.”  After decades, it becomes the only way you know how to interact with the world.

In trying to hold onto your humanity, you latch onto childhood, possibly trying to recreate the one you never really got to enjoy.   This gets you into trouble, because as you’ve been building a fantasy world – creating a child’s play paradise as your home, owning a chimp, dressing up in elaborate costumes – you haven’t figured out how to engage as well with adults.  You try, but it never seems to work as well.

And all the while, people are dancing to your songs in clubs, watching your videos, loving and buying the music.

You’ve mutilated your face to meet with your father’s approval – approval you’re probably never going to get – and people use your love of children and childhood to make a monster of you in the court of public opinion in exchange for hefty payment.  The world of adults has taught you that you are nothing but a commodity to be bought and sold at their whim.  And so you retreat further into childishness…

And all the while, people are dancing to your songs in clubs, watching your videos, loving and buying the music.

Only now, you are also fodder for talk show hosts and comedians.  And they’re not just making good-natured jokes, but very personal ones about you, your family, your children…And everything you do, be it respond in song, face it head-on in a TV interview, or retreat from public view, only seems to exacerbate things.  You’re stuck between a rock and a hard place and the gates of hell.

And all the while, people are dancing to your songs in clubs, watching your videos, loving and buying the music.

black or white

Picking up on a theme here?  Michael Jackson’s music has continued to sell.  But not only that – he’s continued to sell magazines, get ratings for TV networks, and have other people make money at his expense.  From the time he was about eight or nine, the American public has been complicit with his father in driving him so far off the deep end that, when asked about it in an interivew, he visibly cannot understand why anyone would think it’s wrong that a child that isn’t his sleeps in his bed.  We’ve continued to buy and enjoy his music as we’ve fed him to the wolves.  Hypocrisy.

Lastly, we don’t just mourn the man.  Only his family and close friends knew him enough to really mourn him.  For the rest of us, it is the passing of an artist we respect, a piece of our childhoods, an influence in music, fashion, dance.  We’ve also lost someone who spent much of his life raising awareness and funds for AIDS research, children’s charities, and the poor and hungry in Africa.

I don’t understand anyone who feels the need to jump on the Death Celebration Train.  Call me crazy, naive, or a bleeding heart, but I’ve never been someone who could be happy about someone’s death.  One of my first thoughts after I heard about Jackson’s death was about his kids.  I’m not trying to be funny, but those kids aren’t accustomed to normal sunlight.  I can’t imagine what they’ll go through now that the one adult they had who was making sense of the world for them – nonsensical as it may have seemed to us – is gone. 

michael and children

Hell, even when Saddam Hussein died I didn’t jump on the celebration bandwagon.  One of my first thoughts was Someone, somewhere misses him and is sad he’s gone.  And HE didn’t write Thriller.

RIP Michael.  Thanks for the music.

Published in: on June 25, 2009 at 11:13 PM  Comments (8)  
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8 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. You nailed it on the head, T. The news coverage made it feel wrong that I was so saddened by the passing of an alleged child molester, but you are right — He was a tragic, beloved legend and I can feel sad if I want to!

    P.S. I like this new design.

    • Indeed. As someone who’s lost people important to me, if anyone were to tell me that I shouldn’t grieve the way I needed to, I’d probably rip their head off. Just sayin’.

      Also, thanks about the compliment on the design. It’s funny, though. I’m not really crazy about it – just changed it in support of the Iranian protesters – and yet I’ve gotten lots of compliments on it. Huh. I’m not the biggest fan of green, but I might just leave it this way. 🙂

  2. Well said, T. I agree. I also thought immediately of his kids. Death is death. It’s part of life that we are all afraid of, and I think people often deal inappropriately with that fear.

    • It’s true. No one really likes to think about death, but it’s really the great equalizer that binds us all together. I remember when that “Benjamin Button” movie came out, and I read an interview with Cate Blanchett about how she wanted to do the movie because it was a movie ABOUT death, which you never see. And it’s true. The thing is, talking about death doesn’t HAVE to be completely sad. If we accept it as something that happens to everyone, we can use it to celebrate life, too!

  3. Michael Jackson was an Icon – capital I.

    The whole dynamic functions in the identification with the icon – whether it’s tarot cards, rorscharch tests, i ching, religious mania, it’s all about identification with something that allows us to project portions of ourselves and how we see the world, but which we aren’t prepared to accept in ourselves, onto “the other.”

    Our holiness, our prescience, our talent and power, our ambiguity: we project them onto the other and then weep for ourselves when they die.

    Hysteria and hate may be two different responses, but they ultimately arise from the same sense of projection.

    • Very true. It’s funny – I’m nowhere NEAR being any kind of celebrity, but as an artist who has close family and friends, I always get so mad when I see celebrities getting torn apart in the press. Mostly because I can’t help but think of those people as artists, singers, writers, performers who have families and friends and lives and who don’t deserve the kind of unrelenting scrutiny they often get. I don’t think of anyone as an Icon, even if I’m a big fan of theirs…mostly, I just think of them as people who do REALLY well what I WISH I could do.

      Then again, that’s me projecting. 🙂

  4. You nailed it. I will miss his music. I do not have the sense of loss that some feel. I tend to only feel a hurt or void when its someone that I personally knew that has moved on. One important point that few people have said and most people are completely oblivious to is; where were all the well wishers and fans on Wednesday. Where were all the people speaking of his kind heart his innocence his positive influence two days ago or two months or two years. As screwy or misunderstood as he may have been he obviously was not as guilty or evil as the “media” would have us believe. By the way his friends and associates speak of him (now that he is gone) he seems like a person I would have liked a great deal on a personal level.

    Of course with celebrity you get more scrutiny by the “media” but no one deserves to be constantly hounded. I guess we as a planet will never learn the golden rule. “Do unto others as we would have them do unto us.”

    So I ask where were they (his real friends, family, associates) when he may have needed him most? And where were we his fans (myself included) that sat back all these years laughing at the jokes.

    • Exactly. And I’m certainly not sitting here saying that I NEVER laughed at the jokes, or have no part in it. We all do. And it’s sad. If there’s one thing humanity is good at is exalting people just to tear them down so we can feel better about ourselves. I wish schadenfreude weren’t so hard-wired into us…

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