“Is there any other person whose death would evoke the same global response in this century?” wondered a well known journalism professor in his Twitter posting. The answer seems to be no. Michael Jackson, love child of the American Eighties and its fantabulous excesses, is probably going to be it.
My mother's still convinced he died of cancer. When I asked her, “Do you know this singer called Michael Jackson?” she was irritated. “Yes,” she said, then burst out: “Why did that nice black man have to go and turn himself white? All those chemicals! His skin turned white, his nose fell off, and then he died of cancer.”
I said he couldn't sleep for four days before his death, and he'd asked for strong sleep medication, and that he'd been found the day of his death on the floor with his stomach full of prescription drugs and he probably died of overmedication. My mother was adamant. “I saw it on TV. He died of cancer.” (I have my own theory. Apparently Michael called some nurse up and said he felt very hot on one side of the body, very cold on the other. That's called a Kundalini rising in tantric talk, but lets not get into that in case people start to think you're one major kook.)
Well, Michael tried his best. Nobody can deny he tried his best, and he's not to blame for all of the world's problems. But at times you can't help staring at that chalk-white face and wondering: what happened? How did the glowing boy of the seventies turn into this sinister cyborg of a man? What was it about that particularly American commercial version of fame that led him down that path of reconstruction and deconstruction?
If the 1980s was the American decade, with Reagan, the Cold War, big cars, and MTV as its symbols, then Michael Jackson was probably its ambassador. Or perhaps even its king. He hopped across the Iron Curtain and made love to the Russians. He won the hearts of everybody from prisoners in Filipino jails to Saudi sheiks. And the more outrageous he became, the more people seemed to love him.
But the love ended, as the hysteric, infatuated kind always does, on a bad note. Before long, Jackson was being reviled for sleeping with boys who he claimed were like his children. People didn't believe him. Lawsuits started to pile up. Accusations followed, and before long he was in deep debt.
Kind of like America is right now. Crashing from the great heights of excess, America struggles to regain its posture, regain balance, get back on the dance floor. America has its own Neverlands to deal with — Madoff, mortgage companies, banks with shifty histories. Jackson style transactions in finance emerge, and people shake their heads, one big crash after another, trying to figure out who did what.
Like Jackson's Rwandan nanny, who pumped his stomach many times to clear it of the toxic drugs, Obama now struggles to pump the American economy off its toxic investments. Will he be successful? Can he cut through the accumulated decades of bad policies and investments to make way for a new beginning? Will America stop its addictions to petrochemicals and start living a healthier lifestyle? Will it embrace its multicultural histories and stop pretending its all white? Will the curtain rise again?
MJ had a truly global appeal (as does America.) I was sitting at the Organic Garden Café the day of his death when the music system turned on and Thriller came on air. All of a sudden, I heard a sudden volley of twittering behind me, and turned around to see — two caged parrots, previously silent, which'd now joined into the chorus. Don't ask me. Just try it. Bring some caged parrots and see what they do when you turn on “Thriller.”
The whole planet responded to the death of this singer who has come to be emblematic of America. Now can America return the favor and think of the planet in return? “Betraying the planet,” said economist Paul Krugman of the Waxman-Markey climate-change bill. Although it was passed, 212 American political representatives rejected this bill. America refuses to believe it's excesses, it's petrochemical addictions, it's oil wars, has anything to do with the hurt the planet is facing. Millions of people are (or will soon) face hunger as the climate tips towards an irreversible point of no return. But does America want to pump its stomach free of oil and stop the cancer? No, it doesn't. It would rather die.
It may be no co-incidence that the song that made MJ most global was “We are the world.” The song was written in a day or so by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie. The concert was held to raise funds to alleviate famine in Africa. MJ was concerned about famine. The most globalised man on the planet, who was living a life of wealth beyond people's wildest dreams, was concerned about hunger. Is this a paradox?
Oddly, it's not. And like the singer, his country too has always had this side. America's excesses have surely sickened it, but now we wait for it to get back on the stage to sing and dance, not just about its own glory and wealth, but also about the planet which has made it possible. Can the self-absorption be turned around for a few crucial years, and we ask the smartest, the most innovative, the most inventive, and the richest people to pause on their path to deconstruction and think about how they are part of this interconnected world? Or will we have to bid it goodbye like MJ, with three letters: R.I.P?
(Joshi is a writer. Her book “End of the World” is available in Quixote's Cove, Vajra, Mandala, and other bookstores)
Posted on: 2009-07-03 21:44:04 (Server Time)