Saturday, December 12, 2009

Michael Jackson and the Unhappy Childhood

One day, I think that Michael Jackson's life will be taught as a cautionary tale. But cautioning against what? Well, one thing that I have often thought, and I imagine Michael Jackson himself would attest to, is that his story is a story about the dangers of being denied a 'normal' childhood. Whenever I see child stars, I imagine the many ways that their lives must be different from the life that I had, and ultimately there seems to be about an equal balance of advantages and disadvantages. I mean, child stars have exposure to things that I certainly never saw. They have people willing to do things for them and, and I think this would have been huge for me, people willing to listen to them: people interested in what they have to say, whatever that is. Superficially it seems great, and in a discussion I recently had with a group of people about, of all things, the "Jon and Kate Plus Eight" kids, everyone except me agreed that the material benefits public exposure could bring those kids outweighed the possible emotional repercussions the constant cameras might have on them.

In Michael Jackson's case, it's even moreso. Michael Jackson, born out of the camera eye, wouldn't have even known what a so-called 'normal life' was. That camera eye was there from when he was five years old and it never went away until his death (indeed, the last decade of his life was a constant attempt to avoid it). There are videos of him playing baseball or otherwise engaging in childish activities, but by and large his entire childhood was based around music and, more to the point, around being a celebrity. We know that the altered perception of the media toward him as he grew from a precocious child into an awkward adolescent was devastating for him, and we know that many of his preoccupations as an adult stemmed from a desire to recreate, in his words, "the childhood I've never known". Dealing with abuse at the hands of his father, a grueling touring-and-recording schedule and a million attendant pressures, Michael Jackson makes child celebrity seem downright horrible.

And yet, inasmuch as the 'child is father to the man', the series of solo Sony albums that cement his legacy and are the chief reason he has so many fans today would simply not have been possible had Michael Jackson enjoyed a 'normal' childhood out of the limelight and away from the pressures of his money-hungry father. It's not a popular thing to say, but if great art springs from misery, then Michael Jackson's own childhood misery was a positive wellspring of inspiration for him - perhaps ultimately the primary source of artistic energy that carried him through the eighties and nineties. So this raises an interesting question, both personally (to Michael Jackson the individual) and publically (to the world at large): if his sad, dysfunctional, abused childhood was necessary in order for him to create his subsequent artistic triumphs, was it worth it?

It's an interesting question, and not easy to answer. You might counter that with a happy childhood Michael Jackson would still have been Michael Jackson. While I personally don't believe that, I'd still concede it as possible and ask you just for a minute then to presume that Michael Jackson's childhood unhappiness allowed him to become such a great talent upon adulthood. Again, in that case, is it worth it? From the perspective of society-at-large, it's tough to imagine anyone saying "no", really: his art has brought joy to countless people. But within his own personal, ultimately doomed, life? Well, I don't know. But it's an interesting question.

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