As a child in the 1980s I remember traveling through my father’s village in Bangladesh. I sat in a mud brick house with my cousins. There was no television, phone and only intermittent electricity. Hollywood was unknown in such parts. While sifting through a set of cassettes, most of which emanated from an embryonic Bollywood, the one English tape of music popped out. It was Michael Jackson’s Thriller album.
Before there was Obama, Oprah or any truly global phenomenon, there was Michael Jackson. Elvis, Sinatra and even Madonna cannot claim the depth of reach that Jackson could. His rise mirrored the revolution in communications technologies and the loosening of global markets. He was the greatest individual embodiment of the notion of globalisation, pop culture’s symbol of our universal humanity.
His was the quintessential tale of American celebrity and excess, from the child with the once-in-a-generation talent to the disturbed, grotesque, middle aged figure, wracked by pedophilia charges and lawsuit after lawsuit. He defined celebrity like no other, a figure through which, as abnormal as he was, our own flaws and dreams were filtered.
Biologists say the human being is the one animal that can retain a child-like sense of play throughout its entire life. Jackson’s perpetual rebellion against adulthood was the human notion of an inner child taken to pathological extremes. He was happiest when climbing trees or having water balloon fights.
It was fitting that on his 50th birthday, the extravagant estate built as his homage to a fantasy of childhood remained empty - a site irrevocably tied to his financial and legal troubles, a symbol of a strange star's downfall. His desire to recover a lost childhood never materialised, but his childlike innocence represented the epitome of love and goodness for his legions of fans.
His sexuality was ambiguous. Despite him marrying twice, the first with Lisa Marie Presley and the other an Australian nurse, there were always questions whether these were truly adult, consummated relationships. Right from his teens, his maternal figures were divas like Diana Ross and Elizabeth Taylor. He bonded with them not just through a love of music, but also through his fondness for dressing up and wearing make up.
He came across as an asexual figure, perhaps further increasing his universal appeal, and forcing us to question our own assumptions about race, gender and sexuality. Much like the Peter Pan fantasy environment he wished to recreate, he was a mythical figure turned real. He was a one man Greek tragedy, from his lust for eternal youth to a craving for immortality in the face of humiliation and ridicule, he was human frailty writ large.
Unlike other black legends such as Muhammad Ali, he was never an active political persona. It surfaced only in motherhood statements in songs such as “Heal the World”. His child-like innocence forbade such interventions. He wished to see the human condition as perfectible, and suffered as a result when others exposed his naïveté, most notably at the hands of documentary maker Martin Bashir, to whom he expressed his practice of sharing a bed with children.
For all his apparent innocence, a success such as his does not occur without fierce ambition. This reached outrageous proportions when after Thriller became the greatest selling album of all time, he told a music journalist that he was determined that his next album would sell twice as many. In this respect, he not only defined a musical era, but also a cultural era of pervasive narcissism. He genuinely believed his was a mission of divine proportions, saying in a 1981 interview: “My real goal is to fulfil God's purpose. I didn't choose to sing or dance. But that's my role, and I want to do it better than anybody else.”
His drive to be loved by the public, as compensation for a childhood of abuse from a domineering father, was the extreme of a trend to pursue a secular salvation through the vacuous glitter of fame. Like all great artists whose heightened sensitivities mirror our own humanity, his desire to be loved, our most fundamental need, would prove to be his undoing. His ultimate demise through a likely cocktail of painkillers completed his journey as the tragic hero of our age.
Despite his flaws and the freak show element of his life dominating the headlines for the past decade, the substance of his performance talent transcends it all, as evidenced by the outpouring of emotion from Los Angeles to Lagos. No person in recent memory has commanded such mourning from people so different, perhaps supporting Jackson’s own Messianic self image. It confirms his status as not just the greatest entertainer of the modern age, but a major unifying figure in modern history: a cultural Mandela who embodied the possibilities of human creativity and freedom.