I was too old to ever really appreciate Michael Jackson. The Jackson Five were a pop novelty act to me, and by the time Michael came into his own with his biggest album Thriller I was already busy being a pastor and the father of an infant. Later in his life Michael became increasingly bizarre and creepy. The media loved his antics, but to me the fascination was akin to watching a car crash or a train wreck; you don’t feel you should be looking, but can’t take your eyes off it.
Now in death the media circus begins in earnest, as it has so often before when the celebrated die before their time: Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Anna Nichole Smith.
So I heard singer Celine Dion tell Larry King the other night that Michael Jackson’s death was like JFK’s in its public impact. I think this is pretty far-fetched, but if it is even remotely true it is a very bad sign indeed for the commonweal. America’s culture of celebrity (which is also one of our more successful exports) is bad for the soul of both individuals and societies.
I once heard Bill Coffin ask rhetorically, “Where are our statesmen?” And his answer was, “A society gets more of what it values, so in America we have a lot of really good basketball players.” We value celebrity, and so we get the wild popularity of American Idol and reality shows where people will degrade themselves just to be on TV. We even have celebrities who are famous for being famous, like Paris Hilton. At least Michael Jackson could sing and dance.
Now it’s always sad when someone dies too young in tragic circumstances, but we need to stand back and realize that Michael Jackson was not Ghandi or Mother Theresa, but a talented entertainer.
It is sad to say but we don’t celebrate the wise, the good, the true, the faithful as often as we celebrate the narcissistic, the beautiful, the outrageous, and the just plain weird.
The church’s notion of the faithful dead as the communion of saints (see my Mystic Sweet Communion) has been replaced in popular culture by the cult of dead celebrities whose lives for the most part serve more as cautionary tales than good examples.
My hometown newspaper, the Berkshire Eagle, gave Michael Jackson’s death the kind of front-page above the fold treatment that a presidential assassination or an act of war deserve. There are important stories to be told in our world, not the least of which is the daily starvation of thousands of people, many of them children. The culture of celebrity distracts us from this and other inconvenient truths. Michael Jackson’s own finest hour may have been in 1985 when he wrote and sang, “We are the World.” That was 24 years ago and the “brighter day” still awaits.