Why we need Michael Jackson

If the elections in Iran have brought out the best in Twitter, Michael Jackson has brought out the worst.  His death June 25 unleashed a torrent of morbid celebrity gawking that brought Twitter to its knees.  (Ironically his death will also give him a bigger career boost than anything he had accomplished artistically in recent years.)  So what are we to make of his legacy?

Michael Jackson shaped the 1980s as we remember the decade, culturally speaking.  His landmark recording Thriller shattered the racial divide.  He and Madonna were to MTV what Michael Jordan was to ESPN: catalysts to an important phenomenon.  He was also a humanitarian who used his fame to raise awareness for HIV/AIDS research and charities.

But he was also a deeply troubled soul.  At first we tolerated his eccentricities, such as his fondness for plastic surgery and a chimpanzee named Bubbles.  But in 1993, after he was accused of child sexual abuse, his reputation was tarnished.  (It didn’t help that his sister La Toya accused him of being a pedophile.)  Although he was never criminally charged, in the court of public opinion, he was guilty.  Eventually he settled a civil complaint against the family that accused him.  Then in 2003, he expressed a fondness for having young boys share his bed, which led to more charges of child sexual abuse.  Again he was acquitted, but his reputation received another blow partly because of his own public statements.

Is it possible to divorce Michael Jackson the entertainer from the Michael Jackson the person?  Is it OK to accept the gifts of people we also ridicule, fear, and loathe?  Roman Polanski gave us Chinatown and The Pianist yet he remains a fugitive from the United States after pleading guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor in 1977.  O.J. Simpson and Phil Spector were brilliant artists in their chosen fields, and both men are in jail.

In fact, we need these tragic figures and villains to remind us that people who do great things are capable of doing very bad things, too.   We not only allow ourselves to accept the contradiction between Michael Jackson’s life and his art, we need to do so.  We need to be reminded that he was a flawed human being, like we are