Michael Jackson is Safe Again

Technically, we always preferred to think of him this way.
Technically, we always preferred to think of him this way.

Most people aren’t willing to enumerate the positives to people dying. They’re even less willing to do it in writing and publish it on the world’s most preeminent web sites because of how likely you will offend someone who knows someone who just died. I mean, the odds aren’t good: according to some random ass Internet search, 1.8 people die from death every second, so at least one of their relatives will likely stumble upon this article when Googling “inverted nipples” or “how to kill your parents.”

Fortunately, as the author of both those articles, I am not most people.

And that’s why I’m also willing to raise the stakes to explain why it’s good that the world’s most beloved/reviled song-singer is dead. And really, why it’s OK to like Michael Jackson again because he’s dead.

Yo, “Monster Mash.” Happy Halloween, and I’m-a finish you soon, but Whitney Houston was the greatest graveyard smash of all time. Of all time.
Yo, “Monster Mash.” Happy Halloween, and I’m-a finish you soon, but Whitney Houston was the greatest graveyard smash of all time. Of all time.

When Michael Jackson died four years ago this month, the world had pretty much all but forgotten him, save for some very odd personal habits and accusations of child molestation. Sure, there was still his music, but it came with baggage and snickers. Except, of course, on Halloween because (a) that’s a time for flaunting social and moral taboos, and (b) c’mon, we’re gonna judge “Thriller” but not “The Monster Mash,” a song so hyperbolically self-promoting that Kanye West can’t perform it without blushing?

But, since then, we’ve remembered something: we really, really liked his music. Like, to the point where we liked it enough to not just let Michael have sleepovers with our kids, we wanted him pretty much everywhere doing everything, from shaming drunk drivers with President Ronald Reagan to officiating hockey games, neither of which he was qualified for as a professional singer/dance-fighter.

“I really don’t think you’re OK to drive, Annie! Or the rest of you!”
“I really don’t think you’re OK to drive, Annie! Or the rest of you!”

And now he’s back in our summer playlists. Captain EO is back in Epcot. Even Alien Ant Farm is back on the radio because it’s too great of a stretch for rock stations to play the original “Smooth Criminal.”

So why now? While some people could always listen to “Man in the Mirror” and separate it from the guy who sleeps in a hyperbaric chamber — pretending that weird guy was already, essentially, dead — most people couldn’t do it until he was really, truly dead.

Roland Barthes noticed this back in the 1960s (not about Michael Jackson since he was still cute back then), and suggested in his essay, “Death of the Author,” that pretending the author is dead is the only way to honestly critique any work of art.

You know what you did, Vincent. And for that, we’ll buy your art from the bargain bin at your estate sale.
You know what you did, Vincent. And for that, we’ll buy your art from the bargain bin at your estate sale.

The problem is that, try as we might, a lot of artists make this incredibly hard to do. Like that dress on the wall? Too bad it was designed by anti-semitic John Galliano. Enjoying that movie? Way to support Roman Polanski and child molestation. It’s OK to like Ender’s Game; just don’t like it too much, like in a gay way, because it was written by your homophobic pseudo-uncle, Orson Scott Card.

The more we demand and artists readily supply every facet of their lives to us, the harder it is to appreciate any of them in their lifetimes, a feat that was already nearly impossible.

And that’s why it took four years for us to get over Michael Jackson as a person to finally appreciate his music. And when you think about it, even his worst headlines are nearly 20 years old now, so really, he’s been absent from our constant attention for even longer.

It could have been worse. It took us nearly 130 years to consider Richard Wagner’s music without his recalling his anti-Semitism. Of course, it didn’t help how enthusiastic the Nazis were for his entire catalogue, so that probably tacked on at least another century before Israeli orchestras will play it.

Seriously: what's up with artists, anti-Semitism and child molestation? Couldn't just one be a regular racist asshole like Ty Cobb?
Seriously: what’s up with artists, anti-Semitism and child molestation? Couldn’t just one be a regular racist asshole like Ty Cobb?

It’s something today’s artists should probably consider, even if we’re unlikely to recognize their genius in their lifetimes: why make it harder?

In the meantime, now that Michael’s parts are falling off of him, we can finally listen to his music without picturing his parts falling off of him the way they were in the 2000s. And thank goodness, because I couldn’t take another summer of Katy Perry. Did you see the way she dumped Russel Brand?