Michael Jackson’s sudden and tragic death has revealed the truly iconic status he had achieved in the world. While some of the news media has chosen to continually harp on what they have labeled as Michael’s eccentricities, especially what they have called his bizarre appearance and behavior over the last few years, his 40 years of unbroken creativity and musical genius have secured his enduring iconic status in the minds of an adoring global public.
No death in the last century, including Elvis’s and Princess Diana’s has generated the kinds of spontaneous and sustained expressions of love, respect, and tribute that Michael’s passing has. His musical genius and his iconic status have earned him a permanent and revered place in the hearts, minds, and memories of people of all races, colors, creeds, cultures, and genders throughout the world. The bigger than life icon that Michael Jackson became did all of that for him. Becoming an icon has its price however. Icons frequently consume, confuse, and destroy their hosts. They compete with and frequently engulf the real self. They rob the person of their identity and privacy, then turn them into objects of prey, subvert normal human relations, and induce aberrant behavior. (Witness icons like Elvis, Anna Nicole Smith, and most recently Heath Ledger.) Such was likely the case with Michael Jackson.
The foundation of his being was an extraordinary god-given musical talent—let’s call it the genius that it was. It was enough to make him a star entertainer by the time he was 12 years old. Though the youngest member of the Jackson Five, he clearly stood head and shoulders above his older brothers as a musician, dancer, and entertainer. And no one questioned the fact that he was their leader. But he was also still himself— Michael Joseph Jackson, a talented, hard working, exuberant child prodigy whose contagious infectious spirit and energy brought joy into the lives of all who saw or heard him.
Still one of the Jackson children, albeit the most talented and attractive one, Michael Jackson still struggled to live as normal a life as a genius child can live. Michael sensed that his public wanted more and the perfectionist in him demanded that he give more, become more, become larger than his human self, become larger than life. On the way from stardom to superstardom, Michael Jackson the child prodigy invented Michael, the larger than life icon. Along the way, he lost track of who he was. Struggling to sustain the larger than life icon image—the public face and persona of superstar icon Michael, Michael Jackson became more and more confused and developed more and more distorted views of himself—of who and what Michael Jackson was. The cherubic persona that was the child prodigy Michael Jackson wasn’t good enough to become the iconic Michael. He needed to be fixed—to be transformed—to be perfected based on some external standards of beauty that were the virtual negation of the bubbly, charismatic black child prodigy Michael Jackson. Numerous plastic surgeries and skin treatments killed the physical Michael Jackson and invented the new Superstar image—the icon.
The same distorted view of himself led him down the road to anorexia. Just as anorexics are unable to make accurate assessments of their weight, Michael Jackson lost his ability to make an accurate assessment of his physical self—of his own physical beauty. So he kept fixing himself until he had literally destroyed/erased the physical essence of himself. Ironically, in the final analysis, his iconic status had little or nothing to do with his physical appearance. Granted, the glove, the unique military-like dress, the penny loafers, the white or sequined socks, the moon walk and other dance moves were all props in the making of his iconic image. But it was his music and his showmanship that endeared him to his global audiences and lifted him head and shoulders above the rest of the entertainment world.
The public image of Michael, the Superstar, left little room for Michael Jackson the human being to live and be. Confused, anxiety-ridden, and depressed, the warring Michael Jackson and Michael, the iconic Superstar both finally called it quits. But the musical legacy lives on.