Michael Jackson’s obsession with death finds its only possible release.
The Internet is full to bursting with eulogies, memories, and teardowns of the late Michael Jackson today – from the believers remembering the glory days of the Jackson 5 and Michael making MTV safe for black people, to the gossip-mongers recounting sordid tales of underage liaisons and “duck butter.”
I come here not to bury Michael, or to praise him, but rather to try to understand what brought him to the state he was in when he died, and what I have to tell you may surprise you.
I posit that, for most of his adult life, Michael Jackson has been obsessed with the grave. Many abused children, as Jackson was at the hands (and belt) of his domineering father Joe, fantasize about suicide, and many of MJ’s most famous moments can be read as complex, sublimated suicide attempts. Think about how the following relate to death and dying, will you?
Take Thriller, one of Jackson’s most famous moments. The 14-minute video for the song stars the King of Pop as a resurrected red-jacketed zombie, leading one of the most famous dance routines in music history. But what could drive a good-looking young man to spend a massive amount of money on a promotional film in which they are portrayed as a rotting corpse?
You can see the conceptual seeds of some of Michael’s future struggles with his body and identity in the video, as Jackson’s Black skin rots off to reveal the white bone beneath. Jackson received some of his greatest commercial success from the song, and immediately afterwards is when his public troubles began.
In 1984, Jackson received his first brush with death when his hair ignited during the filming of a Pepsi commercial, inflicting him with second-degree burns on his head and face. During his recuperation, he also had a third rhinoplasty operation performed on his already severely altered nose. This would be only the start of the extreme plastic surgery that would come to define the singer over the next decades.
As the 80s wore on, Jackson’s bizarre behavior continued. One of his most publicized actions was buying the bones of Joseph Merrick, the famed “Elephant Man.” Interestingly enough, this would be debunked as a hoax – but the rumors were spread to the tabloids by none other than… Michael Jackson.
It’s fascinating that, at the peak of his fame, Jackson would seek to associate himself with a dead, deformed man – but it’s also remarkably precognitive. Jackson saw in Merrick a man desperately unhappy with the body life had given him who had finally found escape from it.
By the mid-1990s, Jackson’s life had spiraled out of control. Amidst accusations of child sexual abuse, he found himself addicted to painkillers and at a career low. Interestingly enough, Michael then began making a series of increasingly bizarre moves that made some wonder if he was crossing items off of his “bucket list.”
First marrying Lisa Marie Presley (the daughter of the previous King), then divorcing her and marrying her dermatologist, Deborah Jean Rowe, with whom he fathered two children artificially. Jackson seemed less concerned with living in the moment than ensuring that his accomplishments would be placed into historical context for future generations.
1997’s Ghosts brought Michael back to the supernatural once more – this short film, written by Michael and Steven King, casts the pop star as a supernatural revenant who uses a variety of occult powers to terrify a group of adults who want him out of their town. In one notable scene, Jackson pulls off his skin to reveal the skeleton below and dances with just his dry, white bones.
The birth of the kids, Michael Jr, Paris Katherine Michael, and later Prince Michael, seemed to knock Jackson closer to death. His public appearances became less frequent, and his body was emaciated, frail, and pale as a sheet. Jackson had virtually become the walking corpse he fantasized about in Thriller and Ghosts, and it was only a matter of time before he met the fate he had dreamed of his whole life. Those who knew Michael communicated that his heart was not really into music and performance in his later years, having not put out an original LP since 2001’s HIStory.
In hindsight, it makes sense that Michael would get thinner, whiter, and frailer as he aged – he was trying to meet death in the only way that he could. He knew that suicide would tarnish his reputation even more than the other allegations, a tacit admissal of guilt even if none existed. So he slowly eroded his body, his very identity, and met the grave not with a bang, but with a whimper. I feel sad for Michael Jackson, but it’s too late for that now.
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