Perils of a Prodigy
Many performers can impress or delight, but only a few can astonish. Michael Jackson did it twice. The first time was October 1969, when the hit single “I Want You Back” introduced a cherubic 11-year-old boy who sang with unbelievable maturity, soulfulness and swing. The second was March 1983, when the prodigy — now grown tall, thin and angular — moonwalked through an electrifying “Billie Jean,” leaving a national television audience slack-jawed at how effortlessly he defied the laws of physics.
Jackson’s personal trajectory, though, was excruciating to watch. I’ve never put much stock in the idea that genius always devours those whom it favors. Jackson had flaws and weaknesses, to put it mildly, but so do we all. Money and celebrity make it possible for the rich and famous to succumb to their worst instincts. The blood-sucking parasites who surrounded Jackson all his life made that surrender not just possible but inevitable.
From the beginning — from the moment when Joe and Katherine Jackson decided to mold their children not into a family but into an act — Michael was the meal ticket. No offense to Jackie, Marlon, Tito and Jermaine, but if they had auditioned for Motown’s Berry Gordy Jr. as the “Jackson 4,” he’d have sent them back to Gary, Ind., on the next bus. Michael was the star.
Jackson has said his father used to beat him, perhaps because he was the “golden child.” Joe Jackson has always denied being physically abusive, but in a sense it doesn’t matter. It seems to me that attaching oneself to one’s young son like a leech and denying that boy any semblance of childhood qualifies as abuse.
Michael Jackson once spoke in an interview of working late into the night in a studio across the street from a playground — and crying because he wanted to be playing on the swings and the slide, not singing the same song into a microphone again and again.
On the road, Michael didn’t spend time with boys his own age. He bunked with his older brothers, who were past puberty — and who, quite naturally, had a keen interest in the groupies who would accost them backstage and ask to come up to the room. It’s not a stretch to imagine that Michael might emerge with some confused ideas and feelings about human sexuality.
When Michael set out on his own, he was able to make his own decisions for the first time. But he had had no practice in making decisions, and while the career choices he made were superb — the albums he made at the beginning of his collaboration with über-producer Quincy Jones, “Off the Wall” and “Thriller,” are towering classics — his personal choices were incompetent, unwise and increasingly bizarre.
The worst choice, of course, was the way he frolicked with children at his Neverland Ranch. Jackson was acquitted of child molestation charges, but he also paid a reported eight-figure settlement to the family of one alleged victim. Let me be clear that no childhood trauma would excuse molestation. My question, though, is where were the staff members and the agents and the hangers-on — and the loving family members — who had an inkling that all might not be right at Neverland? Did they choose to look the other way?
I believe Jackson’s story that he suffered from the skin disease vitiligo — though I don’t believe that vitiligo or any other infirmity was the reason for the disfiguring plastic surgery that turned his face into a pale, taut mask. It had to be self-hatred — not necessarily an attempt to make himself “white” but to make himself hideous.
I also believe his story that he became dependent on painkillers while recovering from the accident in which he was badly burned while making a Pepsi commercial. New-age guru and author Deepak Chopra, who considered Jackson a friend for more than 20 years, told CNN Friday that Jackson was a chronic abuser of OxyContin, Demerol and other heavy-duty drugs.
Others were in the house off Sunset Drive where Jackson stopped breathing, including the entertainer’s personal physician. At the time of his death, Jackson was trying to push himself through an arduous rehearsal schedule to prepare for a 50-concert extravaganza in London — 50 grueling concerts at 50 years of age. He was weary. He was in pain.
Jackson’s sycophants cared only about keeping the meal ticket happy. Even if only in self-interest, they should have cared more about keeping him alive.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group