Friday, June 26, 2009

A special moment in history: the death of Michael Jackson


It’s been quite a day really, Friday, the 26th of June 2009. The untimely death of Michael Jackson, the fifth of nine children and second youngest of six brothers, came as a shock to most people across the world, India no exception. There was grief expressed everywhere – in Sweden, Moscow, the Philippines, London and Los Angeles.

It was Jackson’s brother Jermaine who disclosed the preliminary cause of death as ‘cardiac arrest’. As news about Jackson’s death and his life and times entered millions of homes across the world, through television and on Web sites, the New York Times reported later in the day that “investigators were looking into Mr. Jackson’s medical care and potential prescription drugs” and also that the car of Jackson’s personal doctor was “impounded”.

Jackson, of course, belonged to a more recent generation – Thriller, which sold an all-time high number of 51 million copies and earned him five Grammy Awards, happened in 1982. The thought of Jackson’s sudden death took me back years ago, to the death of Elvis Presley in August 1977. Presley was a singer and an actor and famously referred to as King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Jackson is now being called the King of Pop. Both died young – Presley was only 42 when he left the world; Jackson was 50. Another common thread connected both of them. While Jackson’s life bordered on the bizarre and as questions are now being asked about the possibility of an overdose of drugs, Presley had a problem with drugs, too, the cause of his death so young. And, of course, quite extraordinary as it may seem, Jackson married Lisa Marie, Presley’s only child with Priscilla from whom he separated in 1972 after 13 years together. It would be the beginning of Presley’s date with drugs and his eventual demise.

There are differences though - Presley’s career began when he was 18; Jackson began crooning with his brothers when he was only 5. So, while Presley had only about 24 years to make a mark on stage, Jackson’s career spanned 45 years. Presley also essayed roles in 30-odd films.

Jackson married Debbie Rowe in 1996; she bore two of his three children. Who the mother of his third child is, it is still unclear. The only picture people have is of Jackson dangling the child from a balcony window. As LA Times reports, “he raised the children without their mothers and had them wear elaborate masks whenever they went out with him.” Hmm…

And then, there were child molestation charges, sleeping with children in the bed etc… By then, the Thriller days were well past him, and as veteran pop music critic Robert Hilburn writes in LA Times, “As years went by, I watched with sadness as his music went from the wonderful self-affirmation and endearing spirit of ‘Thriller’ to something increasingly calculated and soulless. His impact in the marketplace dropped accordingly. It appeared that his desperate need for this ultra stardom -- the ‘King of Pop’ proclamation -- and his escalating eccentricities made it increasingly difficult for audiences to identify with him. Even some of his ‘Thriller’ fans ultimately were turned off by what struck them as megalomania. In the public mind, he went from the King of Pop to the King of Hype.
Some called Jackson their “guiding light”, others “a troubled star”, “a Mozart of the century”. The LA Times called it a “life of fantasy and tragedy”. Whatever it was, one thing was clear – Jackson’s death had an element of mystery and suddenness about it, as much as Kennedy’s and Presley’s. And judging by the response and reactions, there is no doubt that it is a big moment in history, the death of one of the world’s most popular entertainers, as much as the death of Kennedy or Presley. Finally, as the LA Times quotes Tommy Mottola, former president of Sony Music, which released Jackson's music for 16 years, as saying: “In pop history, there's a triumvirate of pop icons: Sinatra, Elvis and Michael, that define the whole culture. . . ”

For Michael, who gave the world so much, in spite of leading for most a lonely, troubled life as it appears, let me say, “Thank you. Without you, the world would have been the poorer. Rest in peace, always.”

(Michael Jackson's picture is courtesy Associated Press/LA Times)

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