Michael Jackson gets his memorial - but nothing to recognize his mental illness
Posted Jul 07 2009 5:29pm
"Your daddy was not strange," Al Sharpton told Michael Jackson's children. "The way people dealt with him was strange."
Michael Jackson got his memorial today. Jennifer Hudson, Mariah Carey, Stevie Wonder, Usher, John Mayer, Lionel Richie and Motown founder Berry Gordy were all there. Some sang; others talked. All paid tribute to the man who, to quote David Bowie, sold the world.
Tucked in the middle of the tributes and in the news articles on the memorial, however, were some poignant words that explained the real tragedy here. Perhaps Al Sharptons words, as glorifying as they were, came the closest, and exposed the elephant in the room.
We've heard dropped hints of anorexia, obsessive compulsive disorder, arrested development and even " Body Dysmorphic Disorder," a severe distortion in how one views his or her body. Michael Jackson was a star, a controversial one. But he was symptomatic of mental illness, and his death is more of a symbol of failure and ignorance than hope and promise. The failure to address the "Wacko Jacko" stigma that he carried for so long was, perhaps, the biggest tragedy here.
His fans, instead, gave Michael just what he always wanted, glorifying and deifying an obviously deluded an flawed individual. They talked about how he changed music, which he did. They talked about how he sold more albums than anybody, which he did. They talked about he was as big or bigger than Elvis, which was debatable.
It's certainly reasonable to say that he was the biggest star of the past 30 years, one who united the races for a time before his behavior became, to many, reckless, erratic and intolerable.
These stars, however, reminded us only of the Jackson from the 1970s and 1980s, the child prodigy who became a megastar, because that's what people close to Michael Jackson do. They did and do everything he wanted.
But they weren't the only ones talking. There were the older people from the age of Elvis, and before, who just didn't get what Jackson once met to people.
I read in Time magazine that those from the so-called Generation X, the post-baby boomers like myself who were born in the age of Vietnam and Watergate, most likely remember the first time they heard "Beat It." I was a Led Zeppelin and Clash fan, but I actually can remember -- I remember hearing the song on rock radio, and feeling stunned that Michael Jackson was invading my radio space. Few born before 1960 can relate to that.
There were people who seem to always misunderstand the words of our founding fathers, that all people are innocent until proven guilty. Rep. Peter King of New York used You Tube as a platform for calling him a pervert. Others ripped Los Angeles for spending money on a memorial for an entertainer when the state of California is in the midst of its worst fiscal crisis.
Many of the critics, however, made solid points. Why was this man getting a funeral worthy of a president? We can pay tribute to the music, but can we pay tribute to the man?
The ones who should speak the loudest are the mental health advocates who have been challenging the politicians and the public to better understand mental illness and its potential effects. In terms of effects, Michael Jackson was an incubator for them.
In that sense, he wasn't so much a legend like Elvis. He was Howard Hughes, self-destructive and self-medicating, and he'll be among the many celebrities who became lasting symbols of those with mental illness left untreated.
Maybe the answer is to not try to glorify or demonize. Perhaps the answer is to learn and understand.