I learned of Michael Jackson’s death on June 25 while vacationing at a Wisconsin cabin with no phone or Internet access. Although it was frustrating to not be able to follow the day’s sad events, my forced communicative distance from the news gave me time to reflect. I thought about what Jackson’s legacy would be in the coming years.
Although I was never an avid Jackson fan, I am at once fascinated and perplexed by his life. The details of his biography that were equally incredible, poignant, and sad are already well-known to many people. However, what remains to be seen are the threads of Jackson’s story that are yet unwritten.
Today, July 8, would have been my father’s 68th birthday. He passed away unexpectedly in 2005 and his presence is deeply missed. He was a single father who raised my sister and I to be strong and independent women. At his funeral, the minister read brief narratives that each of us had written about his life. I was touched by how the motif of “story” was threaded through our narrative offerings. The minister described how I could carry on his memory through my writing and work with students. My nephew shared a hilarious incident in which my father drag-raced someone down the highway. “There are many more things I could share. That example is just part of his story,” my nephew said.
We Share … So the Next Generation Would Know
I am a member of an educational discussion group in my local community. Our group’s leader typically opens each meeting’s discussion with a meditation from texts such as poetry or religious scripture. She began the discussion several days ago by reading several passages from Psalm 78 of the Old Testament:
1 O my people, hear my teaching; listen to the words of my mouth./2 …we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the LORD, his power, and the wonders he has done./6 so the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children. (New International Version)
These passages touched me because I had been thinking about Jackson’s funeral and public memorial service this week. The finality of his untimely death deeply saddens me as I reflect on the rehearsals for his comeback tour that no one will be able to see.
However, I found the Biblical verses to be strangely comforting because they reminded me that Jackson’s actual death is just part of his story. Indeed, if we think of his life’s story as a continual narrative, with sometimes contradictory plotlines and extended characters, we can see that his wider story will carry on through the people he influenced both directly and indirectly. Some of those who will be touched by Jackson have not yet been born.
Jackson was often vilified for his eccentric behavior by the press and public. I clearly remember his 1993 Super Bowl performance of “Heal the World” (from his album Dangerous). I was living in London at the time and watched the show with my English boyfriend, also named David. I remember how we discussed Jackson’s plastic surgeries and other behaviors while watching the halftime performance. “He has completely lost it,” David said, and I agreed. Here is Jackson’s Superbowl performance:
Now, with an older perspective I feel sadness about that moment because I ignored the message of the song that Jackson sang. In recent days, Jackson’s friends have described his gentle spirit and genuine concern for future generations. The lyrics to “Heal the World” echo this sentiment. The song’s hopeful message of unity and selflessness urges us to work toward future peace for others through our present actions. I will share several stanzas from the song (chorus and part of the bridge):
Heal the world/Make it a better place/For you and for me and the entire human race/There are people dying/If you care enough for the living/Make a better place for/You and for me.
Second stanza of bridge:
We could fly so high/ Let our spirits never die/In my heart I feel/You are all my brothers/Create a world with no fear/Together we’ll cry happy tears/See the nations turn /Their swords into plowshares/We could really get there/ If you cared enough for the living/Make a little space to make a better place.
Almost immediately after learning of Jackson’s passing, I wondered what David was thinking. He was born long after my memories of Jackson’s early global popularity in the 1970s and early ‘80s. I would enjoy telling David about one of my elementary school classmates, who became the most popular girl in school after sporting a red leather zipper jacket like Jackson’s “Thriller” video outfit. We were awed that her mother spent $100 for it. We danced to “Billie Jean” and other songs at our school dances that marked our coming of age.
David Twittered and spoke of Jackson’s impact in interviews shortly after learning the sad news. “I’m really devastated to see the loss of such an amazing and inspiring artist,” David told PopEater. “Michael Jackson has been one of the most influential artists to me and so many other people around the world.” That evening on June 25, David paid tribute to Jackson in a short speech at his concert in Newark, New Jersey:
It is incredible to consider how an artist whose major cuts were released long before David was even born would leave such an impact. This is certainly a reminder of the timeliness of art. Almost immediately after Jackson’s death many fellow musicians detailed how he influenced their dancing, song phrasing, writing, and video construction.
In the same PopEater interview, David urged people to remember Jackson’s contributions to music and not to focus on negative details about his life. That perspective, which helps us remember Jackson’s musical genius, is also a reminder of how each of our stories is never truly just our own.
Both the Biblical passage and Jackson’s song affirm how our stories live on because others may be impacted by them in ways we may never know. This is beauty of mystery and time. As a David Archuleta fan, I know that his music and life will impact others, too.
Feature dedicated to Clifford H. (1941-2005)