Pop Culture

The Man In The Mirror: Michael Jackson, and what our memories about the dead say about us

***In light of Conrad Murray being found guilty of involuntary manslaughter yesterday, The Champ has decided to revamp and repost an entry he wrote a week after Michael Jackson’s death***

Admittedly, I wasn’t as affected by Michael Jackson’s sudden death as many others seemed to be. Despite this relative detachment, I was completely mesmerized and amazed by the consensus public reaction to that news, which, if I recall, was characterized by a public competition to be the best at accurately memorializing him while completely glossing over how f*cked up the last 25 years of his life were.

Mind you, i’m not attempting to throw more salt on Michael Jackson’s ridiculously star-crossed life. Still, when a person has been…

A) Largely defined by their abject weirdness for 90% of their adult life,

B) A lazy punchline for 50% of their adult life,


C) A suspected pedophile

…I dont see how you can’t at least acknowledge this when putting their legacy in context.

MJ aside, his situation sheds a bit more light on the fact that while we don’t have definitive control over how we’ll be remembered, we can control what we remember about everyone else. You can even argue that making the conscious choice to only recognize the positive aspects of a person’s life is just a desperate hope that this same luxury is extended to us.

Thing is, whether you view this type of projection as practical or pathetic, you can’t argue the fact that there’s no bigger affront to what makes us fully human and no more disingenuous way to recall a person’s life, especially when you consider that our deeds usually come from the exact same place as our demons.

This is supremely true in regards to celebrities. The same visceral fervor that made Tupac iconic killed him before his 26th birthday, and the hyper creative eccentricity that made Mike moonwalk also contributed to his multiple self-mutilations, arrested development, and early death.

Omitting these facts downplay and dishonor their accomplishments. There’s no such thing as an adversity-less icon. How can you fully appreciate Malcolm X without being completely aware of Malcolm Little, street hustler and addict, and what future relevance would “Black or White” hold without knowing that the song’s architect was actively attempting to be both black and white?

I realize that this isn’t the most popular line of thinking, that some will see this as (at best) tactless and (at worst) malicious, and that its (extremely) presumptuous to tell someone how they should remember a person. Still, this isn’t about Michael Jackson as much as my fascination with our peculiar reliance on technicolor memories. I just happen to prefer HD.

The more I think about it, the more I’ve begun to realize that there’s probably a connection between my sports fandom and my infatuation with people being remembered the right way. Die-hard sports fans are obsessed with legacies — the feeling that what a particular athlete accomplishes doesn’t matter unless we know exactly what he had to deal with to get there. This is part of the reason why so many veteran players, fans, and sports scribes still harbor a distaste for Lebron James. They felt(feel) like he was cheating history, taking a competitive shortcut to ensure a legacy he didn’t particularly earn. Although I don’t share that sentiment, I understand the thought process behind it. Everything — the airballs you shot as a rookie, the fumble in Super Bowl 10 years ago, striking out each time up to bat in your first playoff game — matters, and your championship rings, retired jerseys, and Hall of Fame busts don’t mean shit without acknowledgement of your struggles and your attempts to overcome them.

You know, with all this being said, I still hope that the half-page obit in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette honoring my (eventual) passing chooses not to include a half paragraph burb on my (future) infidelities and (present) p*rn addiction. I guess i’m not so special after all.

On second thought, including that stuff might not be the worst thing in the world. At least it’d show I was human, and I think Mike would have wanted the same thing.

—The Champ

Damon Young

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB. He is also a columnist for GQ.com and EBONY Magazine. And a founding editor for 1839. And he's working on a book of essays to be published by Ecco (HarperCollins). Damon is busy. He lives in Pittsburgh, and he really likes pancakes. Reach him at damon@verysmartbrothas.com. Or don't. Whatever.

  • Tes

    For a man who went out with much hoopla it seems that no one’s really talking about the conviction as much as I thought they would. Where’s the jubilation? Where’s the fanfare?

  • nillalatte

    Was it any surprise that Dr. Murray was going to be found guilty? Not to me. You are guilty until proven innocent and for any one to believe otherwise is just naive.

    As for Micheal’s legacy… it’s all about the music, what he did with music videos, and gave to many charities hundreds of thousands of dollars to help children. I question the charges surrounding the children, but I further question the parents of those children.

    How will I be remembered upon death? Don’t know. I kind of think my friends and family would remember an unusual type of personality. Someone who enjoyed as much of a messed up life and world as she possibly could, always finding humor in the idiocy of others— and that’s a LOT of humor! :D

    Finally, RIP Joe Frazier. He was one of the greats!

  • Twitter is proving that not having memories of the dead doesn’t stop people from memorializing them. FYI: boxer Joe Frazier died. Basketball player Clyde Frazier is alive; as is Kelsey “Frasier” Grammer; and, last I checked, rapper Frayser Boy. *weeps for the children*

  • Tes

    “The world lost a great ball player. RIP Frazier.” – actual tweet
    -___- <- actual reaction.

  • When people whitewash people’s legacy, it makes for a dull story. Remembering someone as truthfully as possible is not about bashing their memory but presenting their lives as accurately as possible so that it could help someone else facing similar demons.

  • A Woman’s Eyes

    When someone loves you, purely loves you, they tell the truth about you when you are alive and tell the truth about you when you are gone. You can decipher who truly loved Michael based on this.

    Having said this, there are creatively eccentric people who did not get pimped out by their father and had the chance to go to school daily and consistently and
    practice writing their ABCs. They got to specialize with children their age in school and feel safe in their homes. I question whether the Jackson 5 had to exist for Michael to become the entertainer he became in adulthood. I think it is naive to forget that ain’t shit was normal about Michael’s early years and to forget that the biggest celebrity addicts still had the best medical care from their personal physican. I question Dr. Conrad Murray’s lack of a crash cart with an adrenaline shot on the premises. I question the lack of “scared shytlessness” of a doctor treating Michael without one. I question his making sure the children witnessed him take his last breath and the wait to call an ambulance after he stopped breathing. I question the applying CPR on a bed! Basic first aid training says do this on the floor.

    I question whether he even intended for Michael to live.

    “All I want to say is that they really don’t care about us!”

  • Onyx Lady

    Many of those mourning his death and making a media spectacle of his life are doing the same with the circumstances of his death. They’ve just redirected the circus energy toward Dr. Murray. It’ll be another 5 years before Michael Jackson can truly rest in peace. And that’s only if the world’s obsession with him isn’t transferred to his children and their lives.

  • thriller

    With Mike his demons don’t need to be brought up all the time. We all know. His final shows where in London not the USA, his public esteem was that low.

    Upon his death the mood has been ‘but you know what? He’s a modern icon and will be remembered as one of the greatest entertainers of ll time.’

    Even after his Prime he was still a phenom. Bad, Dangerous are strong albums

    RIP Smokin’ Joe. Any young person who has done their history on boxing will have gotten to know Smokin’ Joe very well. I’m 21 and I’ve seen his biggest fights through the internet and sveral (emotional) documentaries. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, the British Channel 4 did a doc on his life, Ali’s behaviour towards him was disgraceful and its something I hold against him. But yeah in this tech. Age you get to really appreciate those that came before you.

  • If i die today remember me like John Lennon even though i’ll never do anything John did *rick ross grunt*

    We always like to whitewash legacies the same way we describe ourselves online today, we emphasize the good, keep the bad under wraps for as long as possible and try to put our best foot forward. We know MJ was an odd man, but we blame the fame. We have a mulatto President yet we front like Michael’s kids don’t look more like Iglesias’ than Jacksons. We ignore the irony of him receiving a Presidential medal for contributing to his anti drug campaign, yet drug addiction ultimately killed him. I guess part of it is that we ourselves want to be remembered in that same light.

  • I can’t stand horror movies. I don’t watch cop shows or any show centered on death or depravity. I actively avoid fear of misfortune. Focusing on the negative things in life and in people stresses my mind and weighs down my spirit.

    There is enough negative in life to balance out any sunny outlook. When I have the choice, and it won’t adversely affect me, I try to choose positive. Focusing on the negative about dead people has no value to me. Is it projection? Absolutely not. I don’t give a rats patooty about my legacy. After I die, I don’t think ill care what people think. I don’t care today.

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