Being the slightly obsessed Archie that I am, one of my first thoughts upon hearing of the death of Michael Jackson was concern for David. How would he manage having to be onstage just hours after learning of the death of one of his icons, a primary source of his own musical inspiration? I was gratified to see, this morning, that David not only powered through his performance last night, but also shared a moment of tribute to Michael and sympathy for his family. I also got to thinking that Michael probably represented for David considerably more than musical inspiration alone, significant as that might be. Even if it was subconscious, I suspect there was a strong sense of identification with Michael on David’s part, due to some unique and undeniable similarities between them.
The shared experiences of Michael Jackson and David Archuleta go well beyond a prodigal talent that was capitalized at a young age. Both soulful pop princes with an obsession for the music charts, they have each expressed a deep sympathy for children and a predilection for childish indulgences. David has confessed to being reclusive and remote at certain points in his young life, a trait that Michael Jackson cultivated into an art. Even an association with controversial religions is a shared aspect. Like David, Michael had a gentle, soft demeanor that was associated with both feminization and ambiguous sexuality. In Michael’s case, he augmented that impression with a perpetual evolution toward physical androgyny. And both artists shared the experience of selfish, severe fathers who were at once responsible for their sons’ musical opportunity, and the cause of much of their emotional turmoil.
In later years, Michael (as well as a number of his siblings) was candid about the impact of his father’s behavior on his life, and much has been revealed through biographical investigations. The always incisive and occasionally controversial Andrew Sullivan summed it up this way:
There are two things to say about him. He was a musical genius; and he was an abused child. By abuse, I do not mean sexual abuse; I mean he was used brutally and callously for money, and clearly imprisoned by a tyrannical father. He had no real childhood and spent much of his later life struggling to get one. He was spiritually and psychologically raped at a very early age – and never recovered. Watching him change his race, his age, and almost his gender, you saw a tortured soul seeking what the rest of us take for granted: a normal life.
But he had no compass to find one; no real friends to support and advise him; and money and fame imprisoned him in the delusions of narcissism and self-indulgence. Of course, he bears responsibility for his bizarre life. But the damage done to him by his own family and then by all those motivated more by money and power than by faith and love was irreparable in the end.
The circumstances of Michael Jackson are ultimately tragic, even as he brought joy to more people at one time on the planet than perhaps any other performer in history. Reading about his life at the end of his life made me sad for Michael, but heartened for David. For even in light of some unusual similarities, the fundamental differences are, I believe, more profound.
The fact that David was not an international superstar by the age of eleven confers enormous advantages upon him. David was nearly an adult by the time his star truly began to rise, and even though his childhood was by all indications far from ideal, at least he had one. Whether because of its early seduction in his life or because of some innate character trait, fame and its trappings were an opiate for Michael Jackson. Maureen Orth, author of the infamous Vanity Fair article on Jackson, reported last night that he spent considerable resources seeking to be accorded lifetime achievement awards all over the world. That kind of behavior is about as antithetical to the nature of David Archuleta as one can possibly get. Can you imagine David actually seeking accolades? He can barely endure the ones he already gets.
David has taken a host of similar challenges and opportunities, traits and circumstances, and appears to be molding them in a fundamentally different direction than did Michael Jackson. In stark contrast to his idol, I imagine that David would be perfectly content if all the fame and money (such as it is), disappeared tomorrow. While Jackson’s burning desires were as much about renown and power as they were about music, David’s values are decidedly more focused and grounded. And because, unlike Michael, David is not the type to be seduced by sycophants wielding all manner of ego fertilizer, I am optimistic that the control he exerts over his own fates and fortunes will increase rather than falter as time goes on, and that his focus and his values will remain grounded, even as he soars to greater and greater heights of artistic and professional achievement.