Heroes, Villains & Cultural FAIL: Thoughts on Michael Jackson

What follows are some ideas I banged out late the other night while writing  the invite to my 2nd Annual MJ Memorial Flashdance (tonight! y’all should come).  It isn’t particularly well-written (it was 3am!) but I’ll post it anyway, because the thoughts are important to me & I don’t have time to improve it just now (my apologies! – I’ll try to get back to it later I hope… feel free to leave edit suggestions in the comments 🙂 )


Besides color, what’s different about these two “Michael Through the Years” images?


from the Chicago Tribune




from the Daily Mail UK


I think it is that the Chicago Tribune stopped at 1990? Why? Maybe because it is easier for us.

In the aftermath of MJ’s death, I was once again reminded of the fact that we as a culture have a hard time getting it right when it comes to dealing with our heroes and our villains.

If the person is a hero, like one of my greatest heroes, Martin Luther King, Jr., we try like hell to make them into a saint – someone who was a perfect paragon & could do no wrong. Even if, as in the case of MLK with his plagiarism & infidelity, that is patently untrue. And if the person is a villain, we make them into a monster – someone beyond human understanding.  The problem with this approach is simple – in both cases we put a huge amount of distance between us and them, a distance that costs us in many ways.

In the case of our heroes, it means that we put them on a pedestal and absolve ourselves of the responsibility to attempt to follow in the better parts of their footsteps: “Oh, I’m no saint, I couldn’t possibly do what MLK did.” By making them different from us, we don’t have to apply their standards to our own lives. If we would allow ourselves to see them as flawed, they would become much closer to us, and much more accessible. We would gain a pathway to improve our lives: “Well he/she was flawed just like me, but look what they were able to accomplish.” MLK was NOT a saint, but what he accomplished was saintly – that makes it even more inspiring in my book.  By making our heroes super-human, we allow ourselves off the hook and fail to hold ourselves to a higher and better standard.

For our villains, we do something similar. Obviously, we shouldn’t attempt to emulate or hold ourselves to their standards, but when we treat them as nonhuman, we fail to learn from the great significance of their lives. Why not try to understand why they got where they are (how could it have been prevented?) or in the case of the smarter ones of them – what critiques of our society are they making (Is there anything to be said for their ideas?) By pretending that they are not like us, we fail to see what they are illuminating. By making our villains sub-human, we waste the understanding of our condition that their lives represent.

So what then of Michael? In the near term after his death, someone said that death restored his humanity – and the obvious truth of that really struck me. But sure enough, for some of us, it went to far. We rushed past his failings and tragedies and lionized him. This is almost as wrong-headed as the many years that we could only stare at the sad freakshow MJ had become. In both of those, we failed. To me, Michael was a hero for many reasons, and a tragedy (perhaps a monster – I don’t really know for sure) for others. When it comes to him, there is so much greatness and tragedy: who can really look at Michael’s pale frightening later years and not wonder about the role of race in America. His pushing the boundaries of race through his music certainly played out in my life. Who can contemplate the allegations of child abuse in his adulthood and not appreciate the abuse he was put through by his father in his youth? To ignore all this is folly, just as it is to ignore the fact that he brought so much joy to so many, and inspired the world to DANCE like no one else ever has.

More particularly, I think of Michael as an *American* hero and an *American* tragedy. His life and death reflected so much about what is great about our culture (the amalgam of black and white .esp in music, the optimism, and class mobility) and what is toxic about us too (the pressure of racism, and the dangers of fame, the love of morbid spectacle). And even his death itself showed us so much about who we, as Americans, are, for better and for worse.

In the end, there are no saints and there are no monsters, there are only men and women & lives both beautiful and sad. And plenty to be learned and appreciated from all.

Thanks for all the JOY and all the lessons MJ.



Here’s the Wikipedia article on MJ...

4 thoughts on “Heroes, Villains & Cultural FAIL: Thoughts on Michael Jackson

  1. wow. interesting connection between a pop idol and significant cultural issues — appreciate the analysis, especially since all things pop tend to be dismissed or trivialized and we fail to make those connections.
    if idols are people too does that mean we all have the capacity or responsibility to strive to accomplish/impact that much?
    glad we’re dancing to MJ tonight!

  2. good thoughts ‘deep. given that one of the foundations of western culture is the idea of a savior, I think it’s a hard thing for us to escape. esp as so many of our stories, myths, legends, and movies repeat it. the chosen one to come save us, and the evil super villain masterminding all the ills (arthur, the matrix, pretty much any fantasy book, star wars, etc). Black and white the world is not. Nor MJ.
    Have fun dancing tonight.

  3. You wrote this at 3am? Most of my friends who do that might as well have been drunk. This is very good. And it makes it much more comfortable for me to think about Michael Jackson. I’ve always been so confused by how different people portray him that I would just ignore it and solely focus on his music (which is undeniably awesome). But the terms you use for him make so much sense, and are touching, in a way. An American hero and tragedy. I’m going to remember that.

  4. I’ve often suspected that there were only a handful of us awake and fully engaged in high school. Glad to have reconnected with another member of the group. Good bloggage.

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