Michael Jackson’s recent interview with Martin Bashir, the enterprising British journalist with questionable ethics, has understandably set off a media maelstrom both in the US and around the world. Jackson, already the media’s poster child for eccentricity and favorite celebrity punching bag, raised new doubts and fears about both his private life and his relationship with his inner circle of friends.
Unfortunately, although today Michael Jackson remains one of the most recognizable names on the planet, he is less recognized for the artistic genius that catapulted him to stardom than for his startling behavior off the stage. I had a chance to spend time with Jackson back in 2001 and, after watching the interview, felt saddened by the dramatic turn his life has taken, perhaps because I felt Bashir’s portrayal of Jackson was alarmist, selfishly harsh, and unfairly controversial. Jackson is, after all, the same genius with more awards than any musical artist in history, whose album Thriller shattered racial barriers, generated seven top ten singles, garnered eight Grammys, and went on to be come the greatest selling album in history. Jackson also recently became the youngest living solo artist to be inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and co-wrote biggest selling single of all time, “We Are the World.”
But, Jackson’s fame came with great personal sacrifice. Having performed on stage since the age of five, Jackson essentially fast forwarded through his childhood; many have claimed he is a child trapped inside Michael Jackson’s body, the victim of arrested development. I learned, due to a frenzied schedule imposed on him by his father, he rarely celebrated birthdays and holidays such as Christmas; his father, while perhaps a managerial genius, was unrelentingly harsh to the point that the physically threatened the Jacksons, deprived them of fatherly love, and was known to call Michael, “big nose.” On Sundays, Jackson would go “Pioneering,” part of the missionary work Jehovah’s Witnesses undertake. He rose to stardom amazingly quick, robbed of the fun and innocence youth bequeaths on those with a more normal upbringing.
Not surprisingly, Jackson also put his fame to work helping others. He was praised by the Queen of England and Ronald Reagan for helping raise millions for children’s causes; “We are the World,” co-written by Lionel Richie and recorded by 45 superstars raised tens of millions of dollars to aid famine relief. When was the last time so many figures larger than life banded together to help a continent with so much potential? Today, wracked by gut-wrenching problems such as HIV infections, debt relief seems to be the most common buzzword for Africa.
Where are the coalitions of artists today? The only organization I can think of with a similar mission is Artists Against AIDS Worldwide, which describes itself as “an entertainment and artist-led non-profit organization dedicated to raising the awareness and money needed to bring direct care to those affected by AIDS, especially in Africa.” Jackson is also known for reaching out to the world’s children who suffer from cancer and AIDS and showering them with attention, gifts, and solace; you don’t hear the media praising him for attending to kids whose time in this world is limited and whose spirits have been lifted by a simple hug or hello.
The Michael Jackson I met certainly reflected the duality we’ve come to experience; on a personal level, he was incredibly shy, immensely respectful, full of cheer, and innocently mischievous. He wanted nothing more than to put a smile on the faces of those in his entourage by encouraging them and sharing joyous stories. But the Michael Jackson on stage was altogether different. I attended his concert at Madison Square Garden on September 7, 2001, just a few days before the September 11th tragedy. It was a testament to the immense power of this individual that so many artists arrived to celebrate his earth-shattering career that night; when Michael arrived on stage, the audience’s emotions and applause was truly deafening. They paid deference to an individual who had changed the face of music and would electrify each member that night; although Jackson recycled songs from his Jackson 5 era and from his solo career, the audience was as enthusiastic as ever. That is the Michael Jackson we need to see more of.
I also remember rehearsing a speech with Jackson until 1:30AM the night before he was to deliver a landmark address to the prestigious Oxford Union. His determination and immense fortitude to fight for what he believed in were on full display during the rehearsal. His speech the next evening galvanized the erudite crowd at Oxford, as Jackson spoke about society’s ever-decaying family bonds and the need for the parents and children to spend more time together. Jackson had launched a charity with this mission in mind, and, months later, arrived at a Newark, NJ movie theater to donate books, meet other families, and impress upon others the importance of cohesiveness in the family structure.
Yet, for all his musical talent , humanitarianism, and philanthropy, Jackson’s life is still overshadowed by two failed marriages, years of plastic surgery, questions about his qualifications as a parent, and of course, charges of sexual misconduct. It may be tempting for even his most avid fans to simply separate Michael the musician, from Michael the private citizen. But inevitably, our reputations are shaped not only through public displays of righteousness, but propriety in all aspects of our lives. As much as I admire Jackson for his past accomplishments, certainly I was surprised to hear him discuss inviting children into his home, nearly 10 years after his career was derailed after the allegations in 1993. No adult individual should be engaging in such acts, which violate standards of normalcy our society strives to adhere to.
At the same time, I was struck by an apparent paradox as I watched Jackson interviewed by Bashir. Jackson came across as inherently asexual and, although he admitted relationships with women in the past, he chose to speak more freely about his brothers’ relationships with women and his own aversion to sexual encounters. It seemed strange, therefore, that Jackson’s admission of maintaining relationships with children conjured inappropriate images in the minds of his audience.
No one really knows if those children were merely invited to Jackson’s home as a measure of his innocent, platonic affection and goodwill, or if those children were abused in some way. Given what we know about the lack of unconditional love in Jackson’s childhood, it would not be impossible to imagine that he was simply attempting to recreate for those kids an environment he knew to be important for children and what Jackson’s childhood sorely lacked. Many of his fans prefer to take this stance instead of the alternative, more incriminating one. However, even assuming Jackson’s mission was innocent, he should have gone about it in a less controversial manner.
What are we to believe regarding Jackson’s storied past in light of the interview?
A 1994 investigation by GQ in the aftermath of a child’s sexual allegations claimed Jackson was the victim of a well-conceived plan of extortion and raised significant suspicions regarding the allegations. The magazine discovered that the boy made the claims after being injected by a dental anesthesiologist with a powerful barbiturate, sodium amytal, which has been shown to facilitate the implanting of false memories in those under its influence. It was only after receiving this controversial drug that the boy made the allegations against Jackson. In fact, “until that day in August 1993…no other accusations against Jackson were made by the boy in question, or about any other child.” GQ also disclosed a taped conversation in which the child’s father, claims:
“Michael’s career will be over … it will be a massacre if I don’t get what I want.” The father was also taped in a phone conversation saying “I
f I go through with this, I win big time. There’s no way I lose. I will get everything I want, and they will be destroyed forever…and Michael’s career will be over.”
According to the article, Jackson’s former maid and bodyguards (who had told the most damaging tales of his purported abuse of children to the media in exchange for large sums of money) admitted under oath they had not seen Jackson do anything wrong.
Perhaps most importantly, according to GQ, “after millions of dollars were spent by prosecutors and police departments in two jurisdictions, and after two grand juries questioned close to 200 witnesses, including 30 children who knew Jackson, not a single corroborating witness could be found.”
Of course, very few believe Jackson has no obsession with children. Certainly, I’ve never been trained as a psychiatrist, but my thoughts on the matter stem from Jackson’s goals in creating his charity Heal the Kids, which was intended to encourage children and parents to spend more time together. Jackson realized that it’s not just celebrity kids who have suffered without childhoods; neglect is more and more a problem in our society, where, like himself, kids are starved of the love which should define every childhood. Of course, the love must manifest itself in a manner which is appropriate and which stands even the most intense level of scrutiny; in listening to Jackson’s interview with Bashir, that’s the message I took away. Without appropriate parenting and guidance, children may grow up ostracized by their peers, with low self esteem, perennially seeking respect by others, and even resorting to violence to gain recognition.
Whatever path Jackson’s future takes, his eccentricities have unfortunately shaped his reputation. The media’s insatiable appetite for more and more controversial acts, and Jackson’s own forthrightness in granting access to his private life, seem destined to have made him a perpetual media target. Yet, Jackson’s genius as an artist cannot be overlooked. Celebrated artists have always struggled to balance their idiosyncrasies with their innate talent, yet very few have been dealt as cruel a hand as Jackson. Vincent van Gogh, for example, once severed the lobe of his left ear and took it to a brothel, where he presented it to one of the women there. History is replete with extremely talented artists whose behavior was not always mainstream.
In no way am I vindicating Jackson and proclaiming his 100% innocence.
Society will always harbor doubts and suspicions about what actually occurred behind the gates of Neverland, and I certainly don’t have perfect information to draw from. But, in a world of uncertainty, freakish behavior, and unscrupulous media tactics, we cannot look up to celebrities as moral role models. They exist as modern-day gladiators from ancient Rome-to entertain and enthrall, not to set the moral and ethical standards by which we as a society aspire to. In our judgment of this very talented man, it bears keeping in mind the fact that there has never been any conclusive evidence convicting him of any wrongdoing.
As one of the articles I read cogently states, “Society is built on very few pillars. One of them is truth. When you abandon that, it’s a slippery slope.” Jackson certainly carries with him a tremendous amount of baggage and he’s alienated legions of fans and created enemies in others; although we may never come to a definitive conclusion, let’s not lose sight of the milestones he reached, the musical revolution he set in motion, and millions of fans whose lives he captivated.