THE BACK PAGES

‘CAN HE BE FORGIVEN?’

King of pop Michael Jackson is attempting the greatest—if most improbable—comeback in modern history

AARON WHERRY March 5 2007
THE BACK PAGES

‘CAN HE BE FORGIVEN?’

King of pop Michael Jackson is attempting the greatest—if most improbable—comeback in modern history

AARON WHERRY March 5 2007

‘CAN HE BE FORGIVEN?’

THE BACK PAGES

music

King of pop Michael Jackson is attempting the greatest—if most improbable—comeback in modern history

AARON WHERRY

In matters of forgiveness, it never hurts to consult a man

of faith. Which brings us almost immediately to Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, host of TLC’s Shalom in the House, author of Kosher Sex, frequent commentator on pop culture, and former spiritual adviser to Michael Jackson, the primary subject of our pseudo-theological question. “Can he be forgiven?” asks Rabbi Shmuley, who parted ways with Jackson some seven years ago. “It all comes down to forgiven for what? What is the offence?”

Here there are several options. There is obviously, first and foremost, the alleged pedophilia. That’s hard to get past. But even if you believe him innocent of those crimes— and, in fairness, he’s never been convicted in a court of law—the possibilities are endless.

There’s his obvious messiah complex. The vague denial of race, adulthood or any sense of personal responsibility. The compulsive mutilation of his face. Or the periodic dangling of infants over hotel balconies. Or most of his post-Bad recording career.

Then there is the small matter of how much he threw away. “I think that one of the sins for which the public does not forgive Michael Jackson is the immense talent that he squandered. Most of us have this innate feeling that to be blessed by God with privilege, with talent, that one must cultivate it and utilize it to some special purpose,” Rabbi Shmuley says. “Very few Hollywood celebrities today do use their celebrity for a sacred purpose. I think the difference is, Michael so towered above them all.”

That Michael Jackson was once of almost unprecedented stature is beyond debate. The question now is: will we ever accept him back? And, maybe more importantly, should we?

With or without our explicit forgiveness, the greatest, if most improbable, comeback attempt in modern human history has already begun. In November, Jackson appeared at the World Music Awards in London and sang (poorly) a few lines from We Are The World. The following month he appeared at James Brown’s funeral and, after spending a year

and a half shuttling between Bahrain and Ireland, took up residence again in the U.S.

There is talk of a new album, with the likes of will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas and R&B singer Akon linked to the project. A new song, featuring rapper Pras, has leaked to the Internet. “He could go anywhere,” will.i.am, the wise man behind such modern classics as My Humps and Let’s Get Retarded, told Billboard. “It’s either gonna be really big or nobody’s gonna care. Ain’t no middle ground on this

one.” A recent report put Jackson in Las Vegas, planning a show there with Simon Fuller, the impresario behind the Pop Idol franchise and manager for David Beckham. Next month, Jackson will go to Japan for a “fan appreciation” event at which anyone willing to pay more than US$3,000 will be able to meet the king of pop (Jesus juice not included). And there are rumours, refuted publicly, of an upcoming guest spot on American Idol.

This is surely just the beginning. But as will, i.am put it, there ain’t no middle ground this time. Now nearly 49 years old, almost two decades removed from his greatest glory, having almost defiantly made himself a weirdo of epic proportions, this is probably Jackson’s last, best shot at redemption.

It helps here to remember how truly massive Jackson once was. From 1979 to 1988,

Jackson released Off the Wall, Thriller and Bad, a trilogy of albums with Quincy Jones that, by one estimate, has gone on to sell more than 100 million records worldwide (Thriller is still the best-selling record of all time). During that stretch, Jackson had 11 No. 1 singles and won 11 Grammy awards. In between, he reinvented the music video, created the moonwalk, had at least one date with Brooke Shields, and acquired a majority share of the Beatles’ back catalogue. It’s difficult to find a comparison or precedent for the success, fame and individual excellence Jackson achieved during this time, and he might have been, for a short while, the most celebrated entertainer ever.

Of course, this doomed him entirely. Surpassing such success was impossible, but by then, having been a star since he was old enough to stand upright, he was addicted to fame. So in lieu of success he started hanging out with zoo animals and child stars. In 1989 he released a bizarre video for Leave Me Alone that raged against the sensational media coverage he himself had invited. In addition to featuring several dogs wearing suits (always a good idea), it presented Jackson’s life as a carnival ride (probably a bad idea).

“I call it PDS, publicity deficiency syndrome,” Rabbi Shmuley explains, “where you begin to

• feel that your career is waning and you become increasingly desperate to hang on to it. So you make increasingly outrageous statements, you engage increasingly in sensationalism as opposed to real substance. Michael started doing that a long time ago and he’s never weaned himself off it.” Soon enough, Jackson was little more than a circus freak, and the next thing you knew he was up in a tree declaring himself Peter Pan and drinking wine with the prepubescent. His fall was directly proportional to his rise. If he was once the most-beloved pop star on the planet, he is now easily the most despised. “There’s something about Michael that really brings out people’s animus, people’s loathing,” Rabbi Shmuley says. Indeed, people hate Jackson now with a

passion generally reserved for murderous dictators, duplicitous corporate leaders and former football stars who get away with murdering their ex-wives. “It would be the hardest job in PR after Saddam Hussein, and I would be astounded if he could turn things around,” one public relations guru said two years ago after turning down an offer to help resurrect Jackson’s career. “The final judgment is with the record-buying public and they have made their verdict clear.”

Unfortunately for F. Scott Fitzgerald disciples, the second act is now a standard stage of the celebrity life cycle and we long ago learned to forgive, or at least ignore, indiscretion. Elvis started dating Priscilla when she was 14 and he died a bloated drug addict, but he’s now an American icon on par with Abraham Lincoln. Ray Charles and Johnny Cash pushed the limits of pharmaceutical science, but were later portrayed as beloved folk heroes on film. This magazine would require a double issue to list the offences of every entertainer, athlete or other public figure who has run afoul of the law or good taste in recent years— but few, if any, of those disgraced individuals will never be heard from again.

And yet, Jackson is somehow different. This

is partly because he’s never really admitted fault. The public apology—preferably delivered in front of cameras, while sobbing uncontrollably—is now a sort of cure-all for the tarnished star. Such public admissions let us know the disgraced individual acknowledges and respects our outrage. But in Jackson’s case it’s always been apparent that he’s living in his own reality—a sovereign state with little regard for our laws of order.

Granted, Jackson has also simply offended more often and more outrageously than anyone before or since. If it were just the plastic surgery, we might be able to get past that. If he simply made the honest mistake of believing himself a saviour for all humanity, we might forgive him. If there were just the allegations of pedophilia, we might one day get over it (or at least move on).

But his ridiculousness might be an answer in and of itself. First, because it is unreasonable now to place the onus on Jackson. Despite various theories on how he might do so (one record executive suggested he move to New York and “feel some of the concrete”), he’s not going to change. Michael Jackson is not going to settle down, begin writing presidential biographies and make the odd guest appearance on Grey’s Anatomy. He will never again be anywhere near “normal” or even “celebrity normal.” The best anyone can hope for is that modern science finds a way to stabilize the structure of his face and his handlers place a couple of bouncers outside his bedroom with strict instructions to ID all guests. After that, it comes down to us.

“Whatever happened to Michael,” Rabbi Shmuley explains, “is a real morality tale for

a generation positively obsessed with celebrity.” This, not the slowly eroding nose or propensity for wearing pyjamas in public, is the scariest part. That Jackson is somehow less evil than simply freakishly proficient in the art of celebrity. And that, in doing so, he has become a sacrificial icon for our sinful ways.

That’s the thing about Jackson’s reality— somewhere along the way his and ours started to look eerily similar. At this point he seems a pioneer for the sensationalism that defines almost every form of public life—from the indecipherable hectoring of modern politics on cable news to the gossip blogs devoted to Anna Nicole Smith’s ability to procreate. And while you can fault him for many things, you can’t blame him for simply being sensational before it was cool to flash your vagina in public.

And maybe that’s why it’s so hard to forgive Michael Jackson. Because forgiving him, accepting him back into the fold, would be an implicit admission that we enjoy the daily updates on Britney Spears’ underwear (or lack thereof). That we don’t mind the fact Mary Hart is this generation’s Walter Cronkite. That we actually find interesting the sort of outrageousness Jackson perfected.

In that way, maybe we have to give him another chance. “Real redemption comes when you transform your negativity into something positive,” Rabbi Shmuley says, speaking specifically of Jackson, but maybe also of us. “And if there’s one essential religious message, I think it’s that we’re capable of doing that.” In other words, forgive Michael Jackson, forgive thyself. Even if that means the messiah stuff wasn’t completely unfounded. M