The death of Peter Pan
My earliest memory of Michael Jackson is from sometime around 1984 or 1985, when cable first came to the Stangland household. I was flipping through the channels and came across the "Beat It" video on MTV, which prompted everyone in the house to run into the living room. "Anything from 'Thriller' is good," Mom said. I remember that my Great Aunt Helen and Great Uncle Moe were there; Grandma Flo probably was, too. I remember liking the video, but not thinking much of the song. I bet I liked the "Weird Al" version much better.
But when that video for "Bad" came along in 1987, I joined the rest of the world in its collective Jacko hysteria. It seems hilarious now, but Michael did look really bad-ass to a young Sean, and I had never heard a song quite like that. (Indeed, many of Michael's songs sound like nothing else.)
The very next year, I visited Disneyland for the first time in my non-infant life, and saw Jackson in the Francis Ford Coppola/George Lucas 3D short, "Captain EO," in which Jacko brought joy to a hostile alien world ruled by Anjelica Huston (wearing makeup that undoubtedly inspired "Star Trek's" Borg Queen) by singing "Another Part of Me."
My fascination with Michael Jackson has never really flagged. Even in junior high, when Nirvana and Metallica battled for control of my ears, a new Jacko video was still an event. When the full-length "Black or White" video -- the one that ends with MJ trashing a street scene and grabbing himself a whole lot -- premiered, the whole family piled into the living room and watched it, more than once. When Oprah interviewed Michael from the Neverland Ranch (click here for full transcript), the resulting prime-time special became one of the biggest ratings bonanzas in history. My 7th-grade social studies teacher even showed it in class, calling it an important cultural moment, although I suspect catching up on some sleep was more important for him. The Stanglands' account at West Coast Video showed frequent rentals of "Michael Jackson's Moonwalker," both the movie and the Genesis game. (Did it get any better than killing a bunch of zombies by doing the "Thriller" dance?) And then there was "Jam," the video that had both Michael Jackson and Michael Jordan in it, right at the height of Bulls mania.
That fascination changed, of course, when accusations of sexual abuse first came to light. Jacko settled the case out of court. In 2005, Jackson was put on trial for separate allegations, and was found not guilty. I never fully believed the accusations against Jackson, but I certainly don't believe that he did nothing wrong. The nature of the alleged crimes made it easy to demonize Jackson, but I just felt sorry for him -- not because I thought he was innocent, but because I found him to be a tragic figure who was robbed of his childhood, and went much, much too far in trying to reclaim it. (For a far better-written examination of this idea than I could ever provide, read this piece by Roger Ebert.)
You can take a sometimes amazing, sometimes disturbing tour through that quest for childhood by browsing through this online auction catalog of mementos from the Neverland Ranch. Predictably, the collection is a kid's dream come true: toys, arcade games, Disneyana, castles, robots, superheroes. But amid the harmless trappings are some truly twisted offerings, like a golf cart whose hood bears a painting of Michael as Peter Pan. (Go to Page 177 of the "Amusements" catalog. Yikes.)
What will Michael's legacy be? If the comments on the obit at dailyherald.com are any barometer, then scandal will be what he's most remembered for. That doesn't come as a shock to me, even though he was never found guilty of anything. I'll always regard his story as a sad one, scored with music that was sometimes beautiful, sometimes inane, and sometimes misguided, but, more often than not, transcendant. In many ways, Michael lived up to the lyrics of his most poignant song; but he also betrayed them, just as his family apparently betrayed him:
"I'm starting with the man in the mirror
I'm asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you wanna make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself and make that change"
• • •
Sean's Michael Jackson iTunes mix
"Man in the Mirror"
"They Don't Care About Us"
"I'll Be There"
"In the Closet"
"Leave Me Alone"
"Another Part of Me"
"The Way You Make Me Feel"