Five years ago today, Michael Jackson, the icon pop singer, died at his Los Angeles home after suffering cardiac arrest. He was just 50 years old.
Few details of Jackson’s life — or death — weren’t up for public discussion. His well-explored eccentricities only served to fan the flames of paparazzi avarice and public curiosity. He was the kind of celebrity whose every breath seemed to provide media fodder.
Nearly from birth, Jackson’s life was not fully his own. He began performing with his older brothers at age 5. The Jackson Five signed with Motown Records and the rest is as they say, musical history.
Their father, Joseph Jackson Sr., was allegedly as mercurial and strident as he was driven and ambitious. These tendencies likewise took a toll on the quintet. They paid off, but at a high personal and familial price.
As Michael Jackson matured, he embarked on solo projects. His first solo album, 1972’s Got To Be There, was a smash as was his 1979 release, Off the Wall.
His 1982 offering, Thriller, proved to be a watershed in musical history. The title song and the video thereof are widely credited with pushing cable television startup, Mtv, from niche to national phenomenon.
Through these and several other tremendous successes, Jackson continued a slow spiral into paranoia, anxiety and hermetic behavior. The more he withdrew, the more media clawed for scraps of his existence.
By 1993, the truth of Jackson’s real human life had been fully subordinated to the excesses of the legend. He faced accusations that he had molested a 13-year-old boy. Criminal charges and a civil lawsuit followed. In 2003, he was again the target of molestation charges. He was acquitted of all charges during a 2005 trial.
His guilt or innocence mattered less than the orgiastic frenzy of media coverage. If ever one could be put off by the idea of fame, the events surrounding Jackson’s 2005 trial would surely seal the deal.
By most accounts, Jackson turned inward, focusing on the one thing he could mostly control — his corporeal self. While he seldom spoke of it, many close to him suggested he became addicted to cosmetic surgery. The cherubic, plump-faced boy transmogrified into a wraith-like adult with exaggerated features.
The public saw in Jackson the same sad transition it had witnessed in Elvis Presley and Howard Hughes. Men who were kings of their craft were summarily consumed by the monster they helped create. Rakish icons who commanded both fortunes and fame were reduced to a cloistered world, populated by hangers-on and other angling sycophants.
Drugs to sleep, drugs to wake up, drugs just to get by built up in Jackson’s system. Even so, in June 2009, Jackson was preparing for a series of summer concerts to take place in London. Seemingly out of nowhere, on June 25, he was discovered unconscious in his Los Angeles home. The Los Angeles coroner’s office ruled Jackson’s death a homicide after lethal levels of the powerful sedative propofol, as well other drugs, were found in his system. Jackson’s personal physician, who was at the singer’s home when he died, had been giving him propofol as a sleep aid for several weeks. Even in death, Jackson’s life provided plenty of ugly media material.
Owing to its proportions, it is difficult to discern any generalizable cautions from Jackson’s life. Few of us will ever experience the kind of scrutiny and excess that he did. Even so, the time-honored admonishment about the company one keeps seems appropriate. No matter how grand or small one’s realm, the influence of poisoned people can be deleterious.
We’ve all had people in our lives who caused needless drama, drove wedges and encouraged bad behavior. One need not be the King of Pop to fall under their spell. If Jackson’s death teaches us anything, it is to examine our choices and our associations.