Michael Jackson and The Five Stages of Grief: Depression
I don’t remember seeing Bambi, but I was about four years old when I saw Frosty The Snowman. My father was upstairs doing whatever adults do and heard a piercing scream come from the den. He rushed downstairs expecting to find a child with a cracked skull or a nail in her foot, but I was just sitting there, screaming and crying in one healthy piece. “What’s wrong? What happened?” he asked. I poked my lip out and shouted: “FROSTY MELTED!!!!!!!!”
After screaming like a banshee for a few more minutes I started breathing normally again and Daddy explained that Frosty would be back next year. Still, I knew Frosty was dead, and no amount of Christmas cheer was going to bring him back. That’s when I realized what death is, that it’s beyond our control, and that worst of all it involves missing someone that you can’t have back no matter how badly you want them around.
I have been asked the same marginally stupid question a few times this week – why are you sad about it? You didn’t know him personally, they say, and the music and videos you always had are all still there. Nothing has changed, death is inevitable for us all, and the personal relationship that his stardom created with the world is nothing but a media-driven illusion. So why have I been playing the wallflower at every party I’ve been to since June 25 (aside from the Michal Jackson tributes)? Why did I cry when I heard the terrible news, and again for a few days afterward every time I heard someone say the words “dead” and “Michael Jackson” in the same breath?
The obvious reason is that a fifty-year-old black man with three children passed away suddenly. Sure, it happens all the time but that doesn’t make it any less sad when it does. Beyond this, the cold-blooded naysayers have a point: we thought we knew Michael Jackson. He was and still is one of the most carefully constructed brands of the twentieth century. The glittery glove, his signature ad-libs and dance moves, his penchant for animals, and even his unpredictable weirdness and controversy – all were part of something as familiar to us as McDonalds or Coca-Cola. Never mind that he was a living and breathing person; part of the Michael Jackson machine was the creation of a personality whether it was real or not. Since I’m always pragmatic about such things I’m sure that the impression we had of the man himself was at least partially accurate. It’s so much easier to believe that he was warm-hearted, sensitive, and a little bit sad, and everything from his philanthropic actions to his outward demeanor support that belief. It doesn’t do us any good to believe that it was all an illusion and he was actually a jerk. Even if so, we all knew that jerk and it’s sad that he’s gone. Had Michael Jackson and I been close personal friends my level of functioning would be immeasurably lower than writing an essay per day devoted to his death, but I think it’s acceptable (and healthy) to be sad about the death of someone we (kinda) knew. More than almost anything, death itself has the power to remind us of our own mortality and that of those around us. It’s a tempting, but useless, mindspace to dwell in, while remaining very real and lasting.
I console myself with the fact that the naysayers are right – all of the music that we loved is still here. The wrinkle in this source of solace is my fear that Michael Jackson’s death – not the fact that his final album was his worst selling or that Americans seemed to have ‘gotten over’ his mystique – marks the clear end of an era in great popular music. The old “things aren’t what they used to be” belief is something that every generation declares as it ages, but Michael Jackson was one of the few artists that my entire family could enjoy together and equally. The fact that we could do so, and as a consequence, the extent to which everything about the MJ magic was a huge part of my childhood, makes this loss a stark line in the sand between “the old days” and “today.” That level of cross-generational enjoyment is not something I currently see in popular music, and as much as I hope for its return only time will tell.
There’s a final layer of sadness that I can’t help but dwell upon, one that has more to do with my attachment to Michael Jackson as an iconic figure in black pop culture. I always believed that Michael would make a comeback, and I’m not just talking about a bunch of concerts or even him reaching a point where he felt personally satisfied with his career. I really wanted Michael Jackson to escape his hopeless weirdo status and the sadness that came with it. I needed to see something click in him that said you know what, I’m MICHAEL JACKSON and y’all betta’ recognize. Maybe he could even whip off his wig and throw it in the audience or something, I don’t know…I think many of us are sad because not only was his life obviously cut short, we know there was something left for him to do here.
Throwback Video: “You Can’t Win,” The Wiz
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