Eulogy for the King of Pop

Pop music is more than a superficial diversion. It can improve our mood, lift our sights, and remind us of the value of life. At this, few performers were as gifted as Michael Joseph Jackson.

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.”

Jackson in the MTV music video for "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.

Michael Jackson's Thriller
But no matter how frightening his nose, skin, or baby-dangling feats, few can deny his gift of great pop music.

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.”

Orit Arfa grew up in Los Angeles and lived in Israel from 1999 to 2008, in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, where she worked as a journalist. She has published numerous articles and columns on lifestyle and politics in Israel for The Jerusalem Post and The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles. She is happy to have returned to her hometown to pursue the American dream.

14 comments from readers  

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"Some people dismiss pop music as mass-marketed, pandering, and unsophisticated, but I believe pop is among the most accessible of romantic art forms."

Love this!
I was no fan or admirer of Michael Jackson or his music. His ability as a performer is another matter.

This young lady has done a superb job of sorting the wheat from the chaf however and like Ayn Rand herself has caused this now crusty old codger to set up and take notice at the force of her words. Pindar could have done no better.

Thank you Ma'am.
Orit, you have a great talent for words. The expression of loss of part of your youth is heartfelt. It's hard to believe the King of Rock was for awhile the deceased father-in-law of the King of Pop. I think Elvis would have been proud of Michael's work. Maybe not so proud of his habits.
Well spoken and on target!
American pop culture (despite the excesses) has done more to inspire freedom and the pursuit of happiness on this planet than have all the failed diplomatic and military efforts of the last 50 years. Thanks.
Though well written, the basic premise is poor. Modern pop music isn't something that you stop enjoying due to an internal death, more likely it's an artistic awakening that allows you to mature beyond a very simple form of art. To say that there's something wrong with yourself because you have grown out of Britney Spears is simply to be in denial that the initial affinity was anything more than trivial.

Some music stands the test of time; some is popular only in a brief moment. In my opinion, music that stands the test of time does so because it holds something true emotionally, often something complex that bares listening to repeatedly to more fully enjoy. That is almost universally lacking from anything the music industry aspires to because the market value of the moment far exceeds the market of the future. A flash in the pan, lacking deep artistic merit, is of far more economic value due to a series of trivial hits that can be pumped out and marketed at a furious pace.

Michael Jackson was torn apart by this method of artistry and many others have and will follow suit. When we condone the exploitation of children for the purpose of capital gain we induce slavery, though I will concede it is often willing slavery. Please everyone, mourn the child who was so deeply damaged that he felt the need to destroy himself on many levels. Avoid the schadenfreude that helped to wreak him. In the area where capitalism mixes with art, we the consumers are Atlas'. Let us shrug off what is becoming of art. We can demand a product that is not the exploitive and cheap one that the industry chooses to pedal at such a premium.
I thought the conclusion was rushed and unclear but the rest was really well stated, interesting and informative!
Wow, one of the best eulogies I've read for MJ. Thanks!
I enjoyed your perspective of a performer that I never considered much.
Absolutely brilliant! Despite the wall-to-wall coverage, none of the 'talking heads' quite seemed to get it.
Strange-I'm a music lover of everything from opera to rock-I don't consider rap in a music category-and Michael never moved me personally. Isn't it wonderful to be able to disagree?
I am always vaguely troubled by the mourning of dead celebrities as if they were personal friends, expecially if being admonished to "put aside" someone's "deranged existence." It's clear we're belatedly mourning only the loss of a performer, whose best performing years, in MJ's case, were behind him. (He had been the 'former King of Pop" until he died.) When he died some of his fans held tickets for performances they never expected he'd actually give. As a person he was a drug-addicted, neurotic, anorexic, self-mutilating, lying and fraudulent likely pedophile. Sounds like (and looked like) someone who died a while back.
Freedom includes the right to enjoy or dismiss pop music. Michael Jackson added his specific form of entertainment to our culture, which many enjoyed from the late '60s up to his death. While I can't deny his human struggles and failures, his achievements will live on after his shortcomings are largely forgotten. Thanks for an insightful article.
Orit explained the absurd coverage of Jackson very well. It also made me think about the songs I enjoyed and the reasons I enjoyed them. It is also making me wonder why I haven't listened to more pop music in the last 10 years. Good article.
To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.