Thursday evening’s news of the death of Michael Jackson has brought an outpouring of grief and remembrance of his music, his talent and his impact on pop music and the world. Others have seen his death as a chance to lampoon and deride Jackson because of his oddness, his lifestyle and the acts he allegedly committed.
The airwaves and video screens of 1980s America were owned by Michael Jackson. He leapfrogged everyone by producing video that were innovative, creative and entertaining. They were events. He was the total package: passion, intensity, sex appeal and a magical aura. But the magic was deluded by the celebrity, and the rumors and legal battles pushed Jackson deeper into isolation, but not obscurity. Love him or hate him, Michael Jackson was a cultural force, defying and redefining the music, dance and social mores of his day. He looked and acted different from anyone else. His songs were both intimate and universal in their outlook and appeal.
Of all the archetypes in mythology, none is more important than the Trickster. Before the hero, there was the Trickster. Creative, deceptive and disruptive, yet comical, the Trickster is the clever and evil infant Hermes, who stole the cattle of Apollo. He is Eshu of Yorba mythology walk down the road with a hat on, one side black, the other red. He is the shapeshifting, contemptuous Loki of Norse legends. In India, he is Krishna, the blue-skinned flute-playing boy sent to set the world aright by his disruptive, deceptive acts. And Trickster was not only “he.” Trickster godesses, such as Apate and Eris, populate ancient mythology. In the Paleolithic cultures of Europe, the Trickster is the shaman, transformed into an amalgam of animal spirits, a chimeric bridge, envisioning and negotiating between this world and the one unseen.
Michael Jackson was one of the Tricksters of our age. Loved as well as hated, misunderstood and idolized for his actions, Jackson epitomizes the spirit of the Trickster. In his shape-shifting, he became the other--neither black nor white, neither man nor woman, neither gay nor straight. He was defined by his indefinite being, his disruptive appearance, his odd behavior. Appealing to all types of people all the world over, he was known to everyone, but was mystery to all, constantly open to interpretation.
One of his favorite characters from literature was Peter Pan, a child trickster who refused to grow up. Thrust into the spotlight at the age of five, Jackson was deprived of a normal childhood. The rehearsals, concerts and recording studios must have been surreal to a young boy. In a Rolling Stone cover story from the 1990s, one Motown producer remembers that as the other Jackson brothers would go shoot hoops between takes, Michael would stay in the studio and pepper the recorder, engineer and producer with questions. In the recording studio, Michael saw that a new world could be created--a world of song. On stage, his hard work and talent gave birth to delight and magic as audiences adored the young boy, then young man. Jackson felt no need to surrender to adulthood, with its tendency toward banality and stiffness. He became the real-life Peter Pan.
With the appearance of the music video, Jackson found a willing manipulative canvas on which to interpret and expand his songs. Jackson could be whatever he wanted to be: the werewolf/zombie (Thriller); the good kid who was the real tough (Bad); the beguiling magician (Remember the Time). He could poke fun of himself (Leave Me Alone) all on the endlessly changing green-screen of CGI and backlots.
Trickster changes the world, but that change is not always welcome or beneficially apparent. We equally love and vilify the Trickster, as enthralled as we are made uncomfortable by them. Michael Jackson pushed the boundaries in his music and how it was presented. A consummate artist, he had a hand in shaping every aspect of his work. However, that control ended at the studio and stage door. The world of people proved to be a harder place for Jackson to live. For every one person who found inspiration in Jackson’s music, there was another equally ready to highlight any wrinkle, real or perceived. A series of less than successful albums, cancelled tours, botched appearances, and mounting legal problems forced Jackson to seek a space away from the glare of the spotlight. But, the lure of those lights seemed too great. Jackson died while preparing for an incredible 50 shows at the O2 Center in London.
Jackson’s death brings to mind the fragility of life, the fact of impermanence that runs through this world. What will his true legacy be? His music? His videos? His eccentric behavior? Ultimately, the legacy Michael Jackson leaves is the same one you and I will leave--our lives and the people we touched during our short sojourn here. Aside from his children and family, who I suspect will miss him greatly, those of us who were touched by the music and magic of this most unique of human beings have to find what he left for us. What do we do with this man’s contribution?
If you loved the music, the magic of this trickster’s dance, there is only one thing to do. Listen, and then live your life with the passion you heard in the music. Do everything with the intensity and focus you saw Jackson put into his craft. Then do what Jackson himself physically could not because of his fame and notoriety: reach out and do what you can to create a world of beauty, fairness, justice, compassion and vision.
The Trickster showed the way. We ignore him at our peril, and we dishonor the man and the words he sang, the way he lived and the joy he gave.