The death of innocence

This is my column today.

I was too young to comprehend the outpouring of grief when Elvis Presley, Bruce Lee, and John F. Kennedy died. I never really understood what it meant when people, perhaps in an effort to articulate inexplicable grief, made big bold statements such as how the deaths represented the “passing of an era” or about how the deaths marked “the end of innocence.” How can the death of someone so far removed from their daily existence affect people in such a profound way that it becomes a metaphor for a life-defining moment?

The sudden death of Michael Jackson last week made me come to terms with those big bold statements again.

I was—am—a fan of the guy, but he really was more than just a celebrity I admired. He was someone who simply was part of my life’s journey. I practically grew up with him. Not in the literal sense, of course. But he was a large part of my childhood, my adolescence, and even my maturity process. As I wrote in my Web log last Friday, I could actually track my own development as a person using his music as some kind of soundtrack for each of the major events of my life.

Some of my fondest memories of childhood involved listening to vinyl records of the Jackson Five. “Ben” and “I’ll Be There” were songs that my friends and I sang at every occasion. This is indulging in maudlin sentimentality but “One Day In Your Life” was a song that will always hold a special meaning because it was the song that sort of got me through my first heartbreak.

And really, the Christmases of my childhood were characterized mainly by the endless playing of “Give Love On Christmas Day.” The Jackson Five Christmas Album and that Ray Conniff Christmas album were the only Christmas albums played in my house during the holidays up until I was in high school.

I could go on and on to write about how his songs accompanied my growing-up years. I was in college when he shot to global fame courtesy of “Thriller” (my friends and I actually aped his dance moves down to the last gyration). I graduated from college in 1985, a turbulent but exciting period in the history of the Philippines on account of the holding of the snap elections that would eventually lead to People Power. The hope and optimism of the period was made more palpable by “We Are The World,” which as we all know, inspired “Handog Ng Pilipino Sa Mundo” the song that would become the anthem of that period. All the Christmas parties I went to that year inevitably showcased a group performing “We Are The World.”

What happened next was that we all grew up. Everyone, except Michael Jackson, it seemed and it looked like we made him pay for that. That’s when all the weirdness crept in. There is a lot of psychological babble about how Jackson’s whole life revolved around efforts to recapture his supposed lost—or nonexistent—childhood. But through it all, there was always the music. Jackson was a lot of things but there was always no doubt about one thing—he was a musical genius.

Those of us who grew up in the seventies and the eighties could be forgiven for feeling a profound sense of loss. It’s like a large part of our lives has suddenly lost a large part of its raw essence. In this context, Michael Jackson’s passing can really be viewed as the end of innocence. To a large extent, it’s like we’re finally saying goodbye to childhood.

I think that there’s another reason why Michael Jackson’s death is affecting people in profound ways. All the cable news networks—from CNN to Fox—has been devoting almost 80 percent of their programming to the global reaction to the death of the King of Pop. An interesting tidbit: The thousands of Cebu inmates who gained global fame because of their performance of Jackson’s Thriller is one of the “tributes” that is enjoying repeated telecast on CNN. There’s a long list of celebrities and global figures that are now spewing platitudes on Michael Jackson and his contributions to the world.

I was a bit surprised to see noted guru and author Deepak Chopra being interviewed by Larry King on CNN—it turns out he was some kind of a spiritual advisor to Michael Jackson. Even US President Barack Obama has issued a statement. What all these people have to say is interesting. Michael Jackson broke a lot of barriers. The man was a musical genius. We already knew that.

I get the sense however that we’re all grappling with something that has so far remained unarticulated. We’re grieving, yes. We’re all feeling a sense of loss, yes. But deep down, we’re also struggling with a certain measure of guilt. His sudden death deprived us with a sense of closure. There is no such thing as happy ever after. The man never got to redeem himself in the eyes of the world.

In the last decade, Michael Jackson was reduced to being fodder for weirdness and outlandishness. Media projection of the man was that of a freak—some kind of an aberration, almost like a modern day Frankenstein. He was ridiculed, vilified, made a laughing stock for his supposed excesses. Very few actually bothered to separate the myths from the facts, the real from the fantasy; and many were quite content with making hasty judgments and gross generalizations about the man. In short, he was misunderstood up to the very end.

There were those who couldn’t understand his obsession with plastic surgery mainly because they couldn’t empathize with an artist’s decision to use his own body as his own art medium. The idea of an artist re-sculpting himself, offering his own body as sacrifice for the sake of art, is incomprehensible to many the way people vilified Vincent Van Gogh for mutilating himself or the way lots of people shun those who transform their own bodies into canvasses by covering every inch of skin with tattoos.

Many couldn’t understand his predilection for touching his groin, his standard dance move. To many, that represented the ultimate symbol of perversion as if putting one’s hand on one’s groin is automatically synonymous with depravity. Of course people will dismiss my interpretation of the dance move as an expression of a fan’s blind idolatry, but really, body parts are just body parts. A breast is just a breast, a natural part of everyone’s body; there is nothing dirty or perverse about it unless we associate it with something carnal.

It’s really sad that the world lost a musical genius too soon, particularly since it seems he was on the cusp of making a comeback. There is no doubt that a musical genius like Michael Jackson still had a lot to offer to the world. Sadder perhaps is the fact that to this day, many, many years since Van Gogh died impoverished and alone, the fate of artists who courageously strove to be understood for what and who he is remains the same —tragic. As the song written about Vincent Van Gogh says, “this world was never meant for one as beautiful….”


Anonymous said…
Hi Bong. It's been a long time since I visited your blog.
Anyway, I thought of you just now while on a short break from working on my computer, just to see what your thoughts are about Michael Jackson's passing.
Yep, grew up with him and his music, too (so that means we're in the same age group). Am a fan, and it seems I just realized it after his death. I remember my favorites among his songs (Ben, I'll be there, she's out of my life, one day in your life, heal the world, gone too soon etc etc) and I started singing it to my kids while I tell them stories about him. That sparked an interest in them that my daughter downloaded his songs and found out she likes them, too, and put them in our ipods. I've been feeling so sad since news of his death came, feeling the loss and thinking that he was never given a chance by the people who persecuted him even when he was acquitted. And he died heartbroken. Somehow I was never affected by the negative talk about him because I knew of his very sad childhood, if ever he had one, which affected him all his life. He`was a gentle, fragile, kind soul. Listening to him in my ipod, I'm more amazed of his voice, his artistry. And the lyrics of many of his songs are about caring for others and for this earth, while others seem like they are written specifically about his tragic, sudden passing. He is gone too soon.
Rest in peace, Michael. You'll never be forgotten. And thank you for your music, the music of my childhood. God bless your children.

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