I never really liked Michael Jackson. I don't care for his music, and I'm certainly sick of all the hype over his death. So imagine my surprise to find myself writing a tribute of sorts on a blog that's supposed to be about LDS theology. But bear with me, it all ties in.
I shouldn't say I never liked Michael Jackson. I was a monster fan of his way back when he sang lead with The Jackson Five during the golden age of Motown. I even bought their Best Of album some thirty-odd years ago and played it to death. But the Michael Jackson then and the Michael Jackson of today don't even seem to be the same person. I don't recognize any connection between his voice then and his voice later, which seems to me a collection of shouts, hiccups, and staccato chirps.
But then, that could just be my age. When I emerged from my mission in 1975 at age 23 (most young men complete their missions by age 21, but I had to stay over two years for detention) I no longer had any attachment to the popular music of the time. A prolonged period with little exposure to top 40 radio had left me with little interest in any of it.
So when Michael Jackson hit the scene as a solo artist, I was unimpressed. I didn't understand how Thriller could be the greatest selling record of all time; it seemed pretty mediocre to me. And I thought the Beat It video was ridiculous with this frail, androgynous creature trying to look tough by doing a little dance in the middle of a gang fight.
But my distaste for all things Michael Jackson reached a zenith following his recent death when it seemed that half the population was going ga-ga over him. I had no more patience for the ceaseless celebration of the late Michael Jackson than I had for the former hysterics displayed at the passing of other supposed royalty like John F. Kennedy, Jr. or Princess Diana.
And that brings us to why I'm addressing this subject on a blog devoted to the core teachings of Mormon theology. I recently came to the realization that my irrational feelings of aversion for someone who has done me no harm at all are indicative of my penchant for unrighteous judgment. And that kind of judgment is a sin, even when directed at a popular entertainer.
What changed my thinking about Michael Jackson was when I wandered into the bedroom yesterday to find Connie watching the previously recorded memorial service for him. After rolling my eyes in disdain, I sat on the bed and watched for a moment as Michael's brother Jermaine was trying to get through the song "Smile, Though Your Heart Is Aching". While his own heart was breaking.
Suddenly I wasn't watching an extravagant tribute to a self-indulgent pop star. I was seeing a sad old man grieving the death of his little brother.
I got Connie to rewind to the beginning of the service, and we watched the whole thing together. What I saw touched my hardened heart: friends and family simply mourning the loss of a loved one who was taken too soon. This experience forced me to reassess my feelings and think about exactly why I get annoyed for no reason at certain people I don't even know.
Let's take a second look at one of the attributes of Michael Jackson that I used to think was so annoying: his notorious immaturity.
Much has been written about Michael Jackson's lost childhood as the reason he spent so much of his adult life trying to live like a child. But let's face it, there are much worse things one can be other than child-like. So what if he was in many ways stuck with the mind, emotions, and desires of an eleven year old boy? He could afford to be.
When I was eleven, I wanted a monkey. When Michael Jackson was rich enough, he got himself a monkey too (technically an ape, but let's not quibble). I'd probably still want a monkey today if I hadn't already had children of my own and realized what a horror it would be to own an animal that was just like them, except perennially retarded.
And you think it's weird that anybody would want an amusement park in his backyard? What did you want in your backyard when you were eleven? A circus? A carnival? When I was eleven I wanted to turn our sizable backyard into a replica of the Disneyland jungle cruise, and the only reason I didn't was my mom wouldn't let me. (Specifically, she wouldn't help me. I felt entirely capable of digging the canal myself but I needed a grown-up to pay for all that expensive jungle foliage. The audio-animatronics I could figure out later.)
If Michael Jackson grew up and could afford to build the amusement park he'd wished for as a kid, who am I to fault him?
There are a couple of other things I saw Michael Jackson do that could be considered evidence of self-indulgent immaturity, but on closer inspection I have to admit wasn't anything I wouldn't have done myself if I could have.
I saw a clip of from a concert where he made his dramatic entrance by being suddenly shot from a trap door in the floor of the stage, landing firmly on his feet in front of the crowd. He stood stock still, shoulders back, head erect, wearing a costume that made him look like a superhero from the future. The audience went nuts. He continued to stand like a statue, serious and heroic, then gradually reached his hand up to his face. The crowd went nuttier. He slowly removed his sunglasses and stared straight ahead. The fans ate it up. They cheered until they were exhausted. And he still hadn't done anything.
Welcomed by a cheering throng as a conquering hero for simply arriving on the scene! Looking at that through the eyes of an eleven-year-old, I'd have to admit it was pretty cool. Especially if that had been me up there.
On another occasion, at the end of his concert, stagehands strapped a helmet and a jet pack on him and he flew up into the air, disappearing amid cheers, screams, applause, and weeping. Nobody wanted him to leave. Don't tell me you wouldn't want to experience that kind of adulation. Forget an eleven-year-old's fantasy, I'd do that today.
So if Michael Jackson's biggest sin is that he could afford to indulge his childhood fantasies of being the most popular kid in school, what's the harm? What is that to me?
Of course, Michael Jackson's childlike naivete is what got him in the most trouble. He wanted the boyhood sleepovers every normal kid had, of staying up with a group of friends snacking and giggling and watching TV together late into the night. His naivete was his downfall, as he was unable to recognize the impropriety of a man in his forties cavorting with young children. Although he was exonerated of charges of child molestation, many people still believed he was guilty. My own gut feeling tells me that he was simply too trusting and naive. He spent the entire trial in a state of stunned bewilderment that anyone could interpret his "sleepovers" as anything other than innocent get-togethers between friends. The very fact that he was quoted as saying that sharing one's bed with a child was a beautiful thing was evidence enough for me that he was a simple child in a man's body. A real pederast would never say anything so foolish and so culpable.
The biggest reason I have for the recognition of my sin in judging Michael Jackson unrighteously is because I once knew Michael Jackson intimately. So did you. Same as you once knew every person on the earth today, and everyone who has ever lived here.
Ages before he became Michael Jackson and eons before I was ever Rock Waterman, we lived together, all of us, in a pre-existent state where we knew one another for who we really were, not for what we would eventually become on earth. Eternities from now, when I bump into Michael Jackson again, we'll probably reminisce about the memories we had together of our pre-earth life. If we bother to touch on the subject of our short time on earth -his tragic life as an overachiever and my tragic life as an underachiever- it will probably be to simply shrug and say "Boy, that was a weird time, huh?"
If we compare notes at all, it ought to be on how well each of us accomplished what we were actually sent here to do: show love and kindness to our fellow sons and daughters of God.
Among the songs Michael Jackson recorded that I just heard for the first time is a number entitled "Heal the World", an appeal for each of us to work toward making this planet the kind of home God hoped we would. There was a time I would have considered that song hopelessly naive. Now I hope it becomes the legacy that represents his life.
Is there really any harm in my having engaged in snarky celebrity gossip? I think there is. Every ugly word that escaped my lips in describing Michael Jackson, or anyone else I didn't understand -"odd", "weird", "crazy", "creepy", "freakish" -hangs in the ether and somehow adds to the defilement of the universe. It certainly defiles me. Such negativity prevents us all from attaining the "oneness" that God wishes us to aspire to. No one can hold judgment in his heart for a fellow being and still have room for love. One will always cancel out the other.
I heard that the song Michael's brother sang at his funeral, "Smile, Though Your Heart Is Aching" was Michael's favorite song. It that's true, it speaks volumes about his personal loneliness. Michael Jackson's trust was betrayed again and again by those he hired to look out for him. Still, by all reports, he remained a loving, trusting, and generous man-child. Michael Jackson's lack of guile caused him countless problems in his life. But then, my cynicism has caused me a few setbacks too. He may have spent a lot of his life reckless and self-indulgent, but he was also incredibly generous and forgiving.
And me? I've spent a lifetime critical of those I had no business judging, ignoring the huge beam embedded in my own eye. By the end of his life, my old friend Michael Jackson was miles ahead of me in the "become as a little child" department. Maybe I still have time to catch up.