I confess to feeling very nostalgic recently. It wasn’t more than a few minutes from the time that Michael Jackson’s death was announced until his songs began playing all around us. The 24-hour cable news networks played “Billy Jean” in their lead-ins, satellite radio stations began broadcasting all-Michael Jackson songs, and Jackson 5 music was loudly played from cars passing by. Facebook status updates, blog posts, and Twitter tweets were made up of reminiscences about the King of Pop and the latest breaking news about Jackson’s death. I was immediately taken back to the mid-1980s when my Sony Walkman was attached to my ears and the cassette tape playing was either “Thriller” or “Off the Wall” or “The Best of the Jackson 5.”
The majority of posts on the Web were positive about Michael Jackson and of his contributions to society through his entertainment. However, there were negative sentiments as well about the odd life he led, his financial woes, and the accusations of pedophilia that plagued his life but never his popularity. Some weighed in that they were shocked he was so quickly being remembered as a hero when there were so many questions about his lifestyle left unanswered.
I read one comment by someone who expressed disbelief at “the media’s obsession with Michael Jackson, a child molester. A genocide is occurring in Darfur, Tibet is occupied, the Iranian people are fighting for freedom, and our nation’s economy is struggling. Is his death really newsworthy? Is this man really a national hero? Does he represent our values? I think his life, despite his musical accomplishments, was a tragedy. Am I alone?”
The answer is that yes, the death of Michael Jackson is certainly newsworthy but shouldn’t diminish the importance of other world events that are ongoing. While Michael Jackson was never convicted of child molestation, there were certainly enough indications that this might have been a problem he struggled with in his life. The conclusion is that his life was certainly a tragedy, but he should be remembered as someone who entertained generations, revolutionized music and dance, became a pop culture phenomenon, and made society think differently about race. While this might not make him a national hero in the way in which heroes should be considered, his death forces us to be nostalgic about his music and to recognize him as a creative genius.
Perhaps the biggest issue is whether it is fair to bring up the negative questions about Jackson’s life or to only remember his as the larger-than-life entertainer. I recall the time I was asked to officiate at a funeral for a man who was not well-liked by his family and had a history of illegal activities. He lived a lonely life and was regarded as a mean, old man by his neighbors. Meeting with his family members, they shared several negative stories about his life but then asked me to not mention those anecdotes in the eulogy and to “please, just make him look good.” And that is precisely what I did. In remembering him, it wasn’t appropriate to focus on his unfortunate life. After all, he wasn’t able to defend himself.
And so it is with Michael Jackson. There are some individuals who will only be known for their horrific acts, like Hitler and Pol Pot, or Jeffrey Dahmer and Charles Manson. Michael Jackson was known for his tremendous contributions to pop culture.
My colleague, Rabbi David Kay, delivered a d’var Torah earlier this week in which he explained that there exists an “interpretation that the sin for which Moses is punished by being denied entry into the Promised Land was actually omitted from the Torah out of respect for him.” Rabbi Kay suggested that perhaps we can learn from this to resist the temptation to dredge up dirt on those in the public eye, particularly after they have passed on and are unable to defend themselves.
Let us not focus on his alleged transgressions. Michael Jackson, in death, should be remembered for his musical talent and for entertaining the world as the “King of Pop.” He should be memorialized as a cultural icon who gave so much. If there is a lesson to learn from his life, it is that even the world’s biggest celebrities remain human.