I suppose everyone was surprised, even stunned yesterday afternoon to hear the news of Michael Jackson’s death, a terribly sad moment for his family, friends and fans. Like the rest of you I’ve seen a lot of famous people die and even a lot of young famous people die unexpectedly. But for some reason, yesterday in our newsroom, as we tried to follow and figure out what was happening and confirm Jackson’s death, I found myself more shocked than I usually am by these things.
Not sadder or more upset. I don’t think I really felt either of these things more than I have seeing other relatively young people die or seeing their family’s and loved ones’ grief. And please let me say clearly that is not meant with any disrespect. While I liked Jackson’s music and had great respect for his talent, I just didn’t have a strong emotional connection to him.
So, not sadder or more upset, but more shocked. And I was thinking last night, what feels different about this?
I think it’s because so much of Michael Jackson’s life seemed like make believe. Sometimes farcical. But always like play acting, somehow. So much theatrics. So many costumes. And on various levels the desire — often frighteningly realized — to deny or defy his physical self, his age and much more. Even the things that seemed terribly serious, perhaps especially those — the trials for child molestation which could have landed him in jail for years or decades — never seemed to stick. Whether he was truly guilty of these accusations or not, it always blew over. All together it conditioned me to think of Jackson as someone whose drama was always just drama — whether it was the threat of prison or vast debts or bizarre physical tribulations — all of it would pass or blow over, perhaps not even have been real, leaving him more or less in place, as weird or surreal as ever, but basically unchanged.
In the span of time between when news first broke that Jackson had been rushed to the hospital and when it was reported that he’d died, I actually saw some people speculating on the web that the whole thing might be a stunt to get out of his tour dates or perhaps some health emergency that was not quite as serious as it was being described. And even though these speculations turned out to be tragically, embarrassingly off base, I wasn’t sure if they might not turn out to be accurate since it seemed somehow more in character, at least more in keeping with the never ending drama.
In the end death just seemed more out of character for Michael Jackson than for most people. Because through most of his life he and reality seemed at best on parallel but seldom overlapping courses. And death is reality, full stop.
Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.