Like so many today, I was shocked and saddened at the sudden death of pop icon and superstar Michael Jackson. As a Gen-Xer I don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t know his name or hear his music. Michael’s death reminded me that the first album I ever owned was a tape of Thriller. My mother bought it for me along with my very own walkman. (Do you remember those?) With my headphones on, I listened to that tape over and over again, non-stop. And when I wasn’t listening to the tape, I had the radio on, cruising from station to station to hear “Thriller”, “Beat It”, and “Billy Jean”. I don’t recall any other performer who held his kind of superstar power. He and his music riveted my imagination. When Michael Jackson came to town on his Thriller tour, the Washington Post had a full-page autographed insert picture of him which hung on my bedroom wall for several years.
Michael’s good friend Elizabeth Taylor rightly dubbed him “The King of Pop,” and that he was. His music and artistry captured the adoration and respect of a whole generation of young people. And I was one of them.
But then, right at the crest of his powerful career, the magic of Michael Jackson began to ebb away. His inwardly-focused, unusually exotic, outlandish lifestyle seemed to take a strange twist. We heard tales of amusement parks, zoos and other lavish attractions at his Neverland mansion. Then we began to see odd changes to his face– Michael’s infamous plastic surgeries. Speculations about his health and behavior covered the tabloids. We saw images of Michael dangling one of his children outside a window balcony. The stories of lawsuits over child molestation, breaches of contact, and his marriages flashed across the headlines. And it went on and on and on…
Only God knows the inner workings of Michael Jackson’s soul and the things in his mind that led him to the decisions he made over the course of his life. I’m sure the speculations about the kind of man he was will dominate entertainment shows and documentary specials for years to come. Frankly, I think it’s all pretty pointless. He was who he was.
The real tragedy of Michael Jackson, however, is not any of this, but rather the neglected opportunity he had to rally his massive influence to benefit the world who made him famous. When I was a preteen fan of Michael Jackson, anything he might have said or done would have motivated me to be a better person. Even his reclusive, quiet voice could have commanded so much in the lives of people who adored every aspect of his being. And yet, for whatever reason, he turned most of what he had onto himself. And that’s the true tragedy of Michael Jackson: he failed to use the influence he had to make more positive, lasting impacts on the world.
Yet Michael Jackson doesn’t stand alone in this failure. I think of others like Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, Janice Joplin, and others who died far too soon without living up to their full potential in using their gifts to accomplish untold amounts of good. It makes their deaths all the more painful.
Looking at Michael Jackson’s death, I’m also deeply challenged to examine my own life. If I were to suddenly die today or tomorrow, could I honestly say that I used every gift of influence and ability God has given me to accomplish the most good? It’s easy to pounce on a fallen giant, but do I stop to look at my own life with the same kind scrutiny? My former hero’s death has me thinking again. I hope he has even gotten you to think of your own legacy, too. Perhaps then, the ongoing influence of Michael Jackson, even in his death, could spur on some lasting good.