I don't think anyone involved in communications and the arts can escape the presence of Michael Jackson. And I use "presence" in the present tense because it is one that will be with us despite the death of its author.
I know his music and his videos because I have children. My oldest daughter wanted us to name our son Michael Jackson Newquist. I remember hauling my kids to Chicago for a family event and listening to Michael Jackson on the car stereo during most of the drive.
I also was involved in a popular culture class with professors from all of the fine arts leading an analysis of the music video as an art form, and, of course, Michael Jackson dominated the course. He is an astounding creative force whose influence on culture is inestimable.
But that is not why he is such a presence on my mind. A colleague of mine with expertise in photography and lighting and who specialized in musical events worked on Jackson productions a number of times. While he was in the background and by no means close to Michael Jackson, he often talked about what a creative force he was. He recalled how Michael Jackson collaborated with writers to get song lyrics just so, and he recalled that when Jackson thought something would improve a production, no expense and effort would be spared to make it happen. But he also expressed dismay at some of the people who surrounded Jackson. My colleague brought this up many times because it bothered him that so many people gather around a major talent not to support and enjoy its development, but to exploit it and destroy it. He talked about the toxic environment in which Jackson operated and the horrific nature of some of the people who surrounded him.
My colleague's words have come back in full force as I have heard many others remark on Jackson's death using that same term "toxic" to describe the human atmosphere around him.
Michael Jackson was never given a chance to experience boyhood and to be part of the experiments and testing that are a part of it. In adult life, he tried to capture that experience somehow, and it led to charges of child molestation. Although he was found not guilty in a court trial, many people chose to ignore the verdict. In looking at a number of blogs and their comments, I find among the many comments of people who acknowledge Jackson's talent a considerable number who take pleasure in Jackson's problems and humiliations and, apparently, his death. Their words about Jackson are dismissive and more than a little malicious. A growing malignancy in the American character is apparent in our response to Michael Jackson's death.
A poem of Tennyson's, "The Lady of Shalott," speaks of the gathering of the surly village churls who react to the presence of someone of beauty and graceful qualities with crude, ill-bred, and destructive behavior. Those of us who have dealt with people of large talent refer to such treatment as churlishness: the jealousy, resentment, and malicious intentions expressed toward people who seem to have something that others don't and expressed against those who seem to exist on a higher plane.
As a college professor, I think back on the many talented people I have known, and some of those thoughts are not pleasant. They recall some shining talents, but also some of the darkest human tragedies. Among those talented people are stories of suicide, mental anguish, failed relationships, and the struggles to live in a toxic environment.
Michael Jackson was superbly disciplined when it came to creating and performing music. His talent made him a star at the age of five, and all the accounts of his development as a performer verify the professional excellence he brought to his artistry. In other areas of his life, he never had a chance to develop that kind of discipline. Into his adulthood, he was struggling with childhood and adolescence. Genius needs the balance and moderation of a liberal education to allow it to develop without distorting the personality of the genius. Michael Jackson was never given that discipline. Consequently, he was grossly naieve about some of the people around him and what motiviated them.
The personality issues of MIchael Jackson should not be confused with the egotistical displays of some celebrities or would be celebrities. Those of us who have taught and written about talent come to a quick understanding that many of the individuals with humongous egos have the least reason to indulge in such egotism. For them a pretense to talent substitutes for the real tihing. Such was not the case with Michael Jackson.
What was the case was the people who attached to him in order to appropriate some of his fame and fortune, and it was the people whose only response to real talent is the jealousy, resentment, and destructive hatred it inspires in them. Churlishess.
The press fixes on the churlishness and feeds it because it sells newspapers, attracts listeners and viewers, and gives that certain segment of bloggers their orgasmic thrills of defamation that is an essnetial part of churlishness. Entertainment writers who have gone beyond the tabloid gossip have reported that the press accounts had a debilltating effect on Michael Jackson over the years. The press claims it just gives people what they want. The toxic.
The churls are setting the tone of our political discussions and our appraisals of talent. It is hard to find voices with a little class and informed discernment.
As goes Michael Jackson, so goes our culture and our democracy. It is a foolish hope, perhaps, that real talent can prevail.
News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to MinneKota@gmail.com
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
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