Fans always tend to get very defensive when someone says that “so and so” is going to be “the next Michael Jackson.” I am one of those. It’s irritating to constantly see some lame up and comer being compared to the magical wonder that was our King of Pop, Rock, and Soul. But the bigger question is: Why do they do it, and why is it always Michael? I am going to offer an alternative to the usual racist and media conspiracies that claim it as an attempt to knock Michael from his throne-perhaps a refreshing one that will enable us to view these comparisons minus the paranoid tendencies. I was thinking about this especially in light of recent comments about Taylor Swift’s “1989.” Jack Antonoff defended his comment of comparing “1989” to “Thriller” by saying it’s amazing that an artist of today can still have sales numbers that are comparable to twenty years ago. Mind you, this doesn’t mean that anything by Taylor Swift or anyone else today will still be holding up twenty or thirty years from now. But the comment really made me start to think: Michael Jackson is the gauge by which EVERY new artist is measured. That is actually a tremendous compliment. So another way to look at the constant comparisons of some new artist to Michael Jackson may not necessarily be because they are anxious to “replace” Michael-as so many often interpret it-but because he is the yardstick by which success is now measured.
When I was growing up and latching onto whoever was the latest pop idol in the late 1970’s and early 80’s, my grandmother would always say, “Do you think he’ll be as big as Elvis?” Inevitably, the conversation would always lead to my grandmother concluding, “There’ll never be another Elvis.” In a way, she was right. Most of the ‘flashpan” idols of that time came and went-except for one.
For many decades, Elvis was the gauge by which any solo artist was measured. Until you could count yourself among that league, you were nobody. And even today, The Beatles are the gauge by which every group’s success is measured. For years, “we’re going to be bigger than The Beatles” was the inspirational motto of every up and coming rock band. Not to mention, the line became the selling point of any manager trying to pitch his or her latest discovery. “I tell you, they’re going to be the next Beatles!”
Did Michael Jackson, in fact, become the “new Elvis” in the 1980’s by surpassing his solo fame, sales records, and cultural significance? Well, I am sure that any Elvis fan would debate that matter hotly. Personally, I don’t think it is possible for any artist to become the new whoever/whatever and if they did, it would mean they lacked the originality to be themselves-the very thing that makes every artist unique-and thus great. That is, if ranking among the greats is to be their destiny. What people mean, of course, when they claim that any new artist is going to be “The Next _______” is that the person who fills that blank is someone who has made such a monumental impact on the world of music; someone who has left such an indelible stamp, that they have become that metaphoric yardstick by which phenomenal success is measured. The artists who join the ranks of Elvis, The Beatles, and Michael Jackson, however, have to do a lot more than just sell records. They have to impact our culture in some way; they have to be movers and shakers whose seismic impact shifts the music scene for decades to come.
So the next time you hear of any new artist being compared to Michael Jackson, just remember, it’s because he is considered a gauge of greatness and the pinnacle of what every artist hopes to achieve.
Shortly thereafter, I received this beautiful open letter to Prince, Paris and Blanket from a fan in Germany. With so many “Save Neverland” campaigns starting up and, as usual, it seems, so much diviseveness over how to proceed in the effort to save Neverland-or indeed whether to make the effort at all-it makes sense that the final decision should rest with the three for whom it matters most. I was asked to share this letter. I have already done so on social media, but promised that during Michael’s birthday week I would give it the exposure it deserves.
OPEN LETTER TO PRINCE, PARIS AND BLANKET FROM MICHAEL JACKSON FANS REGARDING NEVERLAND
Dear Prince, Paris und Blanket,
Throughout our lives we have always supported your dad with all our hearts. Whenever he had a message to convey or there was an injustice towards him, he could rely on us, his fans, to fight for and with him. We were always proud to say that we tried our best to be there for him whenever he needed us. To this day, our will to stand up for your father´s and your interests is still there and we still care a lot!
That’s why the news of Neverland being up for sale saddened us very much. Neverland to us is a symbol of your dad’s heart, soul and his important message, which was put into practice there. We always had the vision of Neverland returning to being a place of love and hope again one day, a place of happiness for underprivileged children, a place of escapism, a preservation of everyone’s inner child.
But of course Neverland’s fate is not ours to decide. However we strongly feel it should be your decision, and your’s alone!
Perhaps you have other wishes for your former home meanwhile, maybe you see things differently due to your experiences. But judging by some of your earlier remarks regarding Neverland, it might very well be that you still have similar feelings and even plans for Neverland’s future.
If in the meantime you think it is better to give it up and move on, that’s fine. However, if you should not agree with the selling of Neverland but feel alone in this battle to preserve it – don’t! Because we, the fans, will be by your side to fight with you to save Neverland! Maybe we can work something out.
Because together we are very powerful and can achieve a lot! Your dad knew this and often called us his “Army of Love”. We hope that you are aware of the fact that there are many people out there who still truly care about you and who are genuinely interested in your feelings – you just need to reach out and we’ll be happy to help and act on your behalf. But we can only act if we know what’s on your mind. Please let us know and remember that no matter what: We are here for you!
Michael Jackson fans
Lovely video taken by William Wagener, showing some of the birthday momentos left at Neverland this year:
It’s hard to believe that if Michael Jackson were alive, he would be turning 56 today. When Michael died at 50, he joined the ranks of those celebrities who will remain forever young. True, dying at the age of 50 isn’t “young” in the same way that dying at 27 is “young” (as so many of our most iconic musicians have). And we could also argue that artists like Elvis Presley, John Lennon, and Marilyn Monroe, who at least made it past the dangerous “2-7” nevertheless left us much younger than Michael. With Michael, at least we got to see him enter middle age. But by today’s standards, when the average human lifespan is now well past 75, 50 still seems an incredibly young age to leave the world. He may not have had his whole life ahead of him, but he still had at least a goodly half of it. He still had children to raise, and future grandchildren to see.
When Michael died at 50 it still seemed so incredibly young to me, perhaps because now that I am at that age myself, I no longer see it as some ancient mark, but as simply another milestone. Deep down inside, I am still the same girl I was when I turned sixteen. Fifty for me is just another number. But I only have to dig out a photo from 1987, and then hold it to the mirror, to see that, yes, time marches on for all of us.
Michael and I were of the same generation. He would have still been a toddler in diapers when I was born. Because of this-and also because his music was the soundtrack of my generation-I have always felt that inextricable tug of seeing much of my own mortality reflected in Michael’s life. Thankfully, at fifty I still have my health, and God willing, I’ll be around for awhile. When I look at the other former youth icons of my generation, I see us as survivors. Madonna on a good day can still do a cheerleader squat and be reasonably assured that she can spring out of it. Prince has had hip replacement surgery, but he’s still out there; still doing it.
Michael Jackson would have been turning 56 today, which meant he would have been already well past the hump of his mid fifties; inching towards 60. Can any of us really picture Michael Jackson at 60, as an elder statesman? Would he still be trying to pull off the “Bad” era buckles and leather, or the “HIStory” era skin tight gold pants? Or would he have aged gracefully into his silver years, like an old Fred Astaire?
Picturing Michael Jackson as an old man is not easy, and though I have a pretty good imagination, I simply can’t do it. What would he look like today, at 56? Well, one thing we know is that Michael wasn’t going gently into that good night. The surgery; the fillers; the Botox injections, all were done with the ultimate goal of stalling off Father Time as long as possible. I certainly don’t fault him for this. It is the nature of our celebrity and youth obsessed culture. I am certain that Brad Pitt (who is also, ahem, of mine and Michael’s generation) wouldn’t look half so hot these days without a lot of help from his “friends.”
The point is that Michael at 56 would no doubt still be recognizable to us. I wouldn’t have foreseen him at any time in the last six years suddenly deciding to ditch his wigs and hairpieces, foregoing his makeup, skipping his filler treatments and allowing us to see him completely a la’ natural. But what about as he aged into his sixties, seventies, and beyond? I could picture a Michael with silver streaks in his hair, and a few extra lines beneath his beautiful eyes, and it wouldn’t matter because he would still be stunning. But beauty, as the old saying goes, is only skin deep. According to almost everyone who knew him, Michael had a real aversion to ageing, and to the idea of getting physically older. This was perhaps a product of his show business upbringing and especially of being a child star-the idea that with age, something is irrevocably lost. He never wanted to be old, and he got his wish. Perhaps more literally than he wished.
But to get the most realistic idea of what Michael would be like at 56, we need look no further than those who carry a good part of his genetic makeup. For sure, Michael came from a family that has been incredibly blessed with good genes. His grandparents lived well into their 90’s. Both of his parents are now well past 80. Both are in incredibly good health for their age, sharp as tacks, and neither look a day over 70. No doubt, they have money and can afford the best in medical and health care. Katherine can afford the best in cosmetics and clothes to keep her in style. All of these things do make a difference, and rich people can always afford to look better and live longer than poor or even average people. But a lot of it still has to come down to plain ol’ genetics, and no mistake about it, Michael came from incredibly strong stock and with the genetic makeup to ensure a long and vibrant life well into his 90’s. We can also get a good clue from looking at his siblings. All of his brothers are well into their 60’s now, or pushing 60. If you discount Jermaine’s man-boobs (sorry, couldn’t resist!) all of them are still in incredibly great shape, and still very handsome. And his sisters…well, need I say more? Rebbie is 64, LaToya 58, and Janet 49. They are still stunning, and Rebbie could still easily pass for 50. Janet, to me, hardly looks a day older than she did when Control hit the charts. Again, money can do a lot and certainly good plastic surgeons, dieticians and trainers can work wonders, but none of it is going to matter if the genes for long health and longevity aren’t already there.
Who knows what longevity Michael’s life may have held in store, had there been no Conrad Murray, and none of the stress that drove him to an early grave? His autopsy revealed that he was actually quite healthy; there was nothing that should have killed him, and certainly nothing that should have prevented him from being with us for a long, long time to come.
However, Michael may never have been quite the physical war horse that his parents have been. A lifetime of entertaining had started to take its toll on his body. He suffered chronic pain from many injuries sustained throughout a lifetime of performing. As Michael aged into his sixties and beyond, the arthritis noted in the autopsy would have eventually slowed the famous moonwalk; his ability to move as gracefully as a lithe swan across a stage would have eventually slowed to a toddler’s gait. Just getting up and about most mornings was probably no doubt already causing him some discomfort.He would have still had that magical voice, of course. But eventually, Father Time has his impact even there, as higher notes become more difficult to reach with age (and sadly, if all the CPR attempts at saving his life had succeeded, he most likely would have never sang again, after all of the damage the CPR did to his trachea).
The one thing Michael never wanted was to be a shadow of his former self. Yet, had he lived, his life might have taken him on a very different path, one where he would have finally found peace, contentment and fulfillment working behind the scenes, perhaps directing or producing films, and quietly raising his kids and grandchildren. I don’t know if the world would have ever been content to allow him that life, but certainly he deserved it. And I believe that, ultimately, it is what he wanted. His intent was to give it “one last bang” and then…who knows. Just maybe, Michael would have finally been content to grow old, with nothing left to prove.
Michael’s life began in typical dramatic fashion, with a mad emergency dash for Mercy Hospital. Katherine described his birth quite dramatically in her book My Family, The Jacksons:
My experience with Marlon and Brandon didn’t dissuade me from getting pregnant again. The following year August 29, I gave birth to another boy.
I remember that day well because my water broke while my neighbor Mildred White and I were driving over to see the new grammar school under construction, Garnett Elementary.
“Oh, my God, Mildred, I can’t sit in your car like this!” I exclaimed.
“Girl, don’t worry about it,” Mildred said, turning the car around.
At my request Mildred drove me home. I called my mother and she and my stepfather drove me to Mercy Hospital.
Shortly after I got there, I began having contractions. Later that night, my son was born.
“I want to name him,” my mother said. I hated her first suggestion: Ronald.
“How about Roy, then?”
“Oh, my gosh, Mama, no.”
She thought for a little while. “I’ve got it-Michael.”
“That’s it,” I said.
By then I was used to seeing my babies born with funny looking heads, so I wasn’t alarmed by Michael’s. The two other things I remember about him as I held him in my arms for the first time were his big brown eyes and his long hands, which reminded me of my father-in-law’s.-Katherine Jackson, excerpted from My Family, The Jacksons
Sadly, his life ended almost exactly as it began, with yet another dramatic, mad rush to a hospital. They say our lives come full circle. Michael’s life certainly did that. But in between, what an extraordinary life it was!
This August 29th, as the world celebrates what would have been Michael Jackson’s 56th birthday, we are left with so many unanswered questions. But foremost is the question of what he would be doing if he was still here. Sometimes I find myself wondering about the little things; the stupid things. The trivial stuff. What kind of era would we be in now? (maybe still an extension of the “This Is It” era?). Would his hair be straight, or was the return of the curls for good? What style would he be wearing now? Would it still be a continuation of the Rushka Bergman/Ed Hardy styles he was sporting at the end? Would it be military? Retro? (For sure, he would have probably continued his penchant for “themes”).
I wonder all of these things, yet as time goes on, I realize how little any of it matters. The real tragedy in all of this is that he died with his mission for the world still incomplete. I mourn for the things left undone; the children unsaved; the songs never sung.
But while we may mourn these things, it serves no purpose to dwell on them unduly. I want to return to something else that Katherine once said. “I think about my son every day, and how his life turned out.”
Whatever we can say, Michael’s life was not in vain. We can mourn for what has been lost; we can mourn for what has been left unfinished; we can mourn for the tour that never was and the songs that will never be written. But all of that is trumped by the celebration of what was accomplished. And by that, I don’t simply mean winning a bunch of awards or selling a bunch of records. This was a life whose impact can never be quantified by such trivial measures. His impact was so vast, so seismic, that the ripple effect of his existence continues to be felt throughout the world.
I once said here that it doesn’t matter that Michael died. And other than arriving at a sense of closure or justice, maybe it does not even especially matter how he died. What matters is that he lived.