Why I am not mourning Michael Jackson

It’s pretty simple, really:  I never loved him, never hated him. How could I?  I didn’t know him.

And neither did you.

So what’s up?

I always feel confused during these big cultural moments, out of sync, cuz there’s something I’m just not getting. It might sound really cold-hearted, but honestly, I’m not trying to be a jerk. I really would like to understand how people — people I know and respect— can care so much about an event that, to me, feels so distant.  (To me it even feels rather tawdry to be involved, to have this level of public engagement, in another family’s private grieving process. Particularly disgusting are his so-called friends who, in the guise of writing tributes, are revealing intimate details he swore them to secrecy about during his life… but that’s another topic.)

Maybe I don’t really know what it means to be a fan, in some profound sense.  It’s almost un-American to say, but I seriously can’t think of a single celebrity whose death would make me, on a non-PMS day, weep.  At most I think a public event has made me mourn a facet of myself or reflect with sadness on a time in my life passing; but in these cases I’ve been aware my emotion is all about me, not really that man in the mirror .

Love, grief: to me these are intimate emotions, waves of feeling that come to me in relation to people I know — and I don’t mean people I “feel like” I know. I mean people who know my name, too.  Y’know, real people.

And mega-celebrities are not real people in our lives, however much we want to imagine they are. The great illusion of celebrity is that we’re supposed to feel intimate with these people who are actually as remote to us as the moon.

What any of us thought we knew of Michael Jackson was a public surface, a skin. Even the self that an artist expresses is just a version, not the real person. It’s hard enough to truly know the people in our lives, let alone those we encounter only through the filters of media, marketing, and stage-lights. Heck, any of us who put ourselves out in public — whether it’s a Facebook update or a book or a film — know how easily we are misunderstood, mis-read.  I suspect that fame only amplifies that tendency.

So we experienced Michael Jackson’s art, yes; so we honor and remember it as a part of an important time in our lives, as culturally significant, etc. Like everyone else, I’ve been tuning back into his music, and I’m filled with admiration for his particular genius.  His art is still with us, as the massive numbers of video and audio downloads over the last two days makes clear.

But the man?   You and I never could go along on Michael Jackson’s moonwalk, any more than we could on Neil Armstrong’s.

Still, it seems like something more than a deep appreciation for the music is creating this moment of communal grief; the last time I remember seeing something like this was with Princess Diana. (Wasn’t feelin it then, either.)

So I’m curious: Do you feel sad about his passing in the same way you would about someone you actually knew, or is ‘fan grief’ a different order of feeling altogether?  Are you maybe mourning a time in your life, a part of yourself that was reflected by him or his work, a generational change?  Are you swept up in the drama as if you were watching a movie and someone died?

Or something else?

What I’m not really asking is how or why Michael Jackson touched you; there’s been plenty of that.  I’m more curious as to how, if you’ve been sad about his death, you make sense of having strong feelings about the death of someone you don’t know.

And of course, no one has to justify how they feel.

Including, I suppose, me.

4 thoughts on “Why I am not mourning Michael Jackson

  1. There is one other thing – something I realized when I was watching some of the funeral footage. MJ’s music had the capacity to make you happy – some of it is just intrinsically happy and has that effect on whoever listens to it. That is a very powerful thing. I think when you can immediately feel that kind of goodness from creative expression, you feel a gratitude towards the person who manifested this. And so to me the sadness also reflects the sense of loss around losing the person who created a little bit of happiness in the world, one that was universally felt. Probably the degree of sadness is proportionate to the degree of happiness his music brought.

  2. I think is it important to acknowledge the tremendous personal gift given by an artist: how his or her expression of humanness, creativity, complexity may have touched us in our own life stories.

    But I also think it is insane to pry further than that willingly shared gift — the art. Why people choose to learn so much detail about the personal lives of celebrities is beyond me. For those who participate, it’s a kind of mass delusion that our society sanctions. For the celebrity victim, it seems like an intense, even violent, intrusion. How can this not have an effect on a young person’s psyche?

  3. I disagree. We did know MJ; we knew the persona he presented and the persona that morphed over the decades. I feel sad because a part of my growing up is now gone (“off the wall” years), and because his life became a troubled, tragic carnival in spite of his immense talent and so his death is sad. I feel sad because the America that created MJ and the best of it that we believed in at the time has come to an end, and the sight is not a pretty one. It’s disfigured beyond repair. Like MJ’s trajectory, the era started out with a certain human-ness, naivete and hope (think the 70’s and “I’d like to buy the world a coke” spirit), peaked during the 80s yuppy years, and ends with deeply mixed feelings with doubt cast on his actual role in abuse allegations, and in the middle of the biggest economic restructuring we’ve seen in generations. We have wanted to believe in Neverland/Hollywood/the dream of an easy life, but in today’s harsh light of day, the makeup and plastic surgeries look awful. And still, they say MJ is the most famous person in the world; that anywhere you go, people will know who he is. He was an American creation, and the possibility for both that kind of creation and that kind of reach of American culture doesn’t exist anymore. Maybe for the better. But it marks a change, and so it feels sad. We hoped MJ would be able to get it together, pull himself up by his bootstraps, fix his face, get back on the road, entertain us, make us feel good. Make it all better. Unleash that enormous talent again, come back and make us ALL dance in the American idiom. But he’s gone now. Pop is dead. Or I should Pop+talent is dead.

  4. Thanks for this thoughtful post, Minal. I think you hit it right on the head when you ask whether this communal fan grief is really each of us mourning some part of ourselves, whatever part that made us fans of MJ–his tragedies, his music, his fashion influence, his dance moves.

    I’m especially appreciating this idea coming from someone who’s had her own tiny taste of fame lately. You’re right about that fame illusion. Everyone’s running around telling each other how they feel about MJ the man, as though any of us know one dang thing about that. I’m far more interested in hearing how his music, his idol status, his dance moves inspired you than how you feel about his apparent drug addiction or his infamous interest in children.

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