The marches on Iran’s streets look like a scene from “Thriller.” Obama’s taxing energy bill makes me want to sing “Leave Me Alone.” And Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, is dead.
Over the weekend, newscasters barely covered the first two items, but they are obsessed with dissecting Michael Jackson’s death, as if it’s the end of the world as we know it. And in some ways, it is.
Let’s put aside for a moment Jackson’s deranged existence. We all know of “Wacko Jacko’s” freaky facial features and strange bedfellows. He was no role model for our children — despite several songs dedicated to “the children” — whom he might have loved a little too much.
Let’s remember him as the King of Pop. Let’s remember the way he deftly landed on his toes in “Billy Jean,” the way he passionately showed us how strong and funky was his fight in “Beat It,” the way he triumphantly trotted like a man risen from the dead in “Thriller.”
I was around eight years old when the album Thriller reigned, and I remember no one ever instructing me to like him. No brilliant marketing campaign could have gotten me and millions others so hooked to his records and videos. He had that X-factor: a voice and body that seemed born to entertain, an individual magnetic drive and talent screaming to find expression — and succeeding.
Michael Jackson is the story of the American dream — gone awry. He rose to superstardom and fell to superfreakdom. Perhaps the American dream is sometimes so awesome and great that those who live it feel a need to subdue it through drugs, disguise, and deviancy, especially in a world that so smugly exploits the fame and fortune earned by individual geniuses.
While it’s emerging that Jackson was the victim of meddling managers, agents, friends/family, doctors, and lawyers who cared more for his status then his well-being, Jackson ultimately bears responsibility for his failures — and that too is the beauty of the American dream. He was free to make the most of his life, or to give his life-force to the mangling hands of plastic surgeons.
Pop music is emblematic of a free society. It’s an American stronghold, combining the Western achievements of melody and harmony with beats inspired by African rhythms. Some people dismiss pop music as mass-marketed, pandering, and unsophisticated, but I believe pop is among the most accessible of romantic art forms.
Pop songs abide by Ayn Rand’s definition of art as “the selective recreation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments” — giving individuals a concise medium to recreate and share an emotional idea so meaningful to them that they must sing about it to the world.
These songs may not involve complex arrangements that spell out an expansive, philosophical view of man; rather, they give us in the matter of a few minutes a “sense of life,” which Rand defines in The Romantic Manifesto as “a pre-conceptual equivalent of metaphysics, an emotional, subconsciously integrated appraisal of man and of existence.”
The lyrics express the thought; the melody, the correlating emotion — ranging from the depths of depression to the height of pride. It’s a musical genre that gives expression to countless of voices and ideas, with the best of them worth fortunes.
My favorite pop songs have become to me like yardsticks of my state of happiness. Like the time when I was a student at a repressive religious school and couldn’t enjoy jogging to my one of my favorite pop duos, The Carpenters — not necessarily because the rabbis didn’t approve, but because I was so depressed and confused that I couldn’t match my emotional state with music.
Or like the time when I was in a relationship that damaged my self-esteem, and I couldn’t enjoy driving to Britney, whose songs always made me feel alive, powerful, strong, and excited for life. (Let’s hope this Princess of Pop meets a better fate than the King.)
Musical tastes are subjective and change over time, but I know that when I can’t enjoy my favorite pop songs anymore, I’m not free inside — or else I’m deadened.
Michael Jackson, like the pop superstars before and after him, achieved such admiration and attention because he ignites in us a zest for life. His art gives us moments of inspiration to dance alone in our living room, to shop for a glove or bracelet while discovering our own personal style, to quit whatever gets us down and find better ways of living. Millions of people clamoring just to touch their pop idol, is nothing but a relentless human instinct to touch a part in our own soul that has the power to go from an anonymous being to a king.
So with Jackson’s death, a symbol of the American dream has died. And in a world where governments around the world are cracking down on our ability to sing — both literally and metaphorically — his death deserves just as much coverage as those governments and the brave souls who say to them, funky and strong: “Just Beat It.”