While receiving one form of closure via his memorial service in Los Angeles, in typical fashion, right now we still don’t know where Michael Jackson is going to be buried.
If the wonderfully poignant and star-studded globally televised service hit the mark with style and great dignity for some — it’s already expected to be one of the most watched events of all time — others continue to scratch their heads in disbelief at all the fuss.
After all, how does such a notoriously dysfunctional American idol who died amidst a swirl of long-time drug taking and a history of alleged child abuse; receive the kind of adulatory send-off even a Pope might envy? Especially given he’s now bound to become the last word in delusional narcissism in the history of the music industry — and that’s some achievement considering the calibre of previous competition!
Then again, as his glittering farewell helped make abundantly clear, this was indisputably a mercurial all-encompassing pop talent whose solo sales success is without peer.
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With a surprise final appearance from MJ, courtesy of the presence of his golden casket, and a tear-filled tribute by his 11-year-old daughter Paris, this was a celebration that showed remarkable self-constraint given some of the major players taking part.
And yet, apart from the location of his final resting place, so many other questions remain. Most of them are beyond awkward thanks to the complexity of the personal and financial wreckage left behind by his premature death at 50. Certainly trying to make sense of such a dizzying but bizarre rise and fall has created a celebrity circus not seen since Princess Diana’s unscheduled exit.
Even by Elvis Presley standards, his dying has provided one sensation after another. Yet for the multitude of fans mourning today, no matter how much dirt is thrown in his direction, it seems nothing can sully their admiration for their fallen idol.
Despite whole new chapters being freshly written in the unfolding history of his tumultuous private life, the media looks on with gratitude safe in the knowledge there are so many more stories still to come.
Given the incredible vicissitudes of his career, is it any wonder so many elements combined to give us “wacko Jacko”? The media ate up tales of massively consumptive spending, an exotic marital history — his rent-a-womb wife Debbie Rowe, his farcical union with Lisa-Marie Presley, his bizarre parenthood, yet none of this mattered when the circus came to town today as he was being accorded his lottery-like public send-off before a burial which may yet eventuate within the confines of his Neverland ranch.
Ordinarily, you might assume that the media would now resume something approaching normal service. But when so many searching questions remain as to cause of death and what role anyone may have played in it, along with what kind of dangerous drugs appeared to be in his keeping if not present in his body, this is a cautionary tale of monumental excess that they can hardly ignore.
Jackson leaves behind a business empire that at first blush seemed to be battling to cope with a mountain of debt. Its fate is also bound up with the future for three young children, who don’t yet know who their legal guardian will be.
In the month before his death The Wall Street Journal offered its own estimate of his debt at that time of $US500 million. But now any thoughts relating to how a living Jackson was going to reduce all that red ink without literally selling the farm is redundant as the Jackson legend and notoriety grow. The comparison with Elvis — shock deaths, venerated musical legacies and homes to which they are indelibly linked — ensures Jackson now becomes Elvis Mark 2. According to an advisor of recent years who claimed he was helping sort out a lot of the mess of Jackson’s finances, Dr. Tohme Tohme told Associated Press how he and Jackson saw a huge future for Neverland and wanted it to be “10 times bigger than Graceland”.
On the basis of a claimed 750 million total sales, Guinness World Records had deemed him the most popular entertainer of all time. This accolade met with similar respect at today’s service from legendary Jackson 5 boss at Tamla Motown, Berry Gordy. He suggested that beyond being the “king of pop”, in his estimation he was the greatest entertainer there has ever been.
Michael Jackson went into orbit and never came down. Though it ended way too soon, Michael’s life was beautiful. Sure there were some sad times and maybe some questionable decisions on his part but Michael Jackson accomplished everything he dreamed of.
As the service showed so brilliantly — as the personal tributes flowed and his songs were performed with a remarkable delicacy including a beautiful rendition of his favourite song Smile by his brother Jermaine (written by Charlie Chaplin for his movie Modern Times ) — the world might have lost a sadly faded talent gone too soon, but he was a giant. As imperfect as his life was, his creative legacy will endure and remain timeless.
As the likes of the Reverend Al Sharpton so eloquently pointed out despite a huge fib about how We Are the World pre-dated Live Aid, Jackson didn’t just dare to dream and offer positive messages of love and hope, but helped changed the world. He claimed black people and other ethnic groups in his own country began taking greater pride in themselves on the back of his success and popularity. His logic was blindingly simple — with no Michael Jackson helping break down barriers of race, there would now be no president Obama.
Walter Yetnikoff, his former record company boss at CBS, in his highly readable autobiography Howling at the Moon (published by Abacus), provided a terrific insight into how he had to resort to naked threats to force music biz heavyweights to give Jackson the attention he deserved and in the process break down industry racial barriers.
I screamed bloody murder when MTV staff refused to air his videos. They argued their format, white rock, excluded Michael’s music. I argued they were racist ar-eholes — and I’d trumpet it to the world if they didn’t relent. With added pressure from Quincy Jones they caved in and, in doing so, the MTV colour line came crashing down. The stunning creativity of Michael’s videos opened the door for black artists, including hip-hoppers and rappers, to the MTV crossover markets.
I also had a Michael Jackson problem with Jann Wenner, publisher of Rolling Stone. I needed Michael on the cover.
“I rarely put R&B artists on the cover,” Wenner said.
“He’s not R&B, he’s pop. And besides, you had him on the cover when he was a kid.”
“That was then. This is now.”
“This is going to be the biggest record in the history of records.”
“Black artists don’t sell magazines.”
“I’m not sure he’s black. He’s not sure he’s black. But that’s beside the point. You think he’s black and your refusal to put a hugely popular black on the cover is nothing but blind prejudice. Keep him off the cover and I’ll report your prejudice to every media outlet around the world.”
Wenner put Michael on the cover.
Yetnikoff also provides a telling observation on how obsessive Jackson was in his hunger for ever greater successes even as he was dominating the music industry like no-one before him in the sales of Thriller.
Michael’s passion for world conquest was singular. I knew all about burning ambition — my own and those of other executives and artists. But Michael’s drive bordered on the psychopathic. He lived, breathed, slept, dreamt and spoke of nothing but No 1 successes. He was possessed. He called me night and day for the latest figures. “They’re tremendous,” I’d say.
“They need to be more tremendous,” he’d reply.
Thriller stayed No 1 for months. When it occasionally fell to second place for a week or two, Michael panicked. Hysterical, he’d berate me for failing to pump up the promotion. “I’m pumping, Michael,” I’d say. “I promise you I’m pumping.”