The quiet, dignified end to Michael Jackson’s mad life
NO Billie Jean. No Beat It. No-one was starting something, not even a moonwalk. Of all the unlikely things, it was often quiet.
Whatever your life had been, you’d probably want it mourned this way: solemn, plenty sad, and plenty of slow songs. But this was Michael Jackson, and no one expected it be as normal as that. So it was time to put aside your thoughts about the life being recognised and be surprised.
And perhaps nothing could have surprised a viewer more than a farewell that flipped the coin from crazy heads to solemn tales - the telling of gentle and kind stories that somehow did not leave you feeling conned, despite all we think we know about the man.
All we think we know - that awful racket, the deafening, maddening volume that surrounded him for two decades – was dialled to the left today, almost to zero. When he lived, no Jackson fan would have been satisfied with a show this subdued.
But in death, his family seemed to recognise there was only one way to rescue the moment from an overdose of grief or ghoulishness, or a garish mix of both. They turned the noise down, giving the world an elegant memorial that seemed to say that whatever this life was, it demanded some reflection and thought – best undertaken absent drums, bass and dancers.
There was a peculiar quiet at times, and from the testimony of audience members afterwards that was evidently as true inside the Staples Centre as it came across on television and the internet. There was no commentary, no MC. There was ample grace and gratitude, and much praise.
But – if you can imagine yourself an alien, freshly arrived on Planet Jacko and trying to make sense of it - there was also no mistaking that the man being honoured had been somewhat sullied. That was necessarily honest, even if the specifics of why were avoided. But the general appeal for resurrection of reputation approached the level of hectoring only a couple of times, and the would-be mob never really took the bait even then. Identity politics had no comfortable place when the identity in question was this tortured.
This was the quietest Jackson crowd ever. And this was clearly a show not designed by the honoree.
There were no golden statues of Himself, or troupes of troops dancing as if they were soldiers enforcing Michael’s martial law – two grandiose features of the mid-90s History tour. There were no endless herds of kids, other than his own offspring at the end, along with some other children who mercifully did not appear to have been rehearsed within an inch of their lives to worship – the latter being the problem that pushed those later Jackson concerts, of which I saw two, to the edge of dubious taste and rampant narcissism.
There was ample reason to fear the same yesterday. Instead we got a choir, a pastor, prayers, his family, his friends, comprising a parade of eulogists who in the main resisted the urge to send Jackson to the grave as the shrieking, sorry victim or deluded Pop Emperor he became in later life.
In between, there were hymns and a couple of hits, and even those chart-toppers were played in the key of Very Quiet.
Where you might have feared a stage full of single silver gloves, that most potent of Jackson symbols was instead confined to the front-row pews, decorating sibling hands. The behemoth Thriller album, Jackson’s unavoidable triumph, was honoured only with John Mayer’s silky take on Human Nature, a title to remind you of the box of traits a death like this forces us to sift through. Brother Jermaine singing Charlie Chaplin’s Smile suggested this was also a throwback funeral, to the days when a Star was a Star was a Star. Clouds be damned.
It was also unexpected that the most overdone musical tribute came at the very start rather than the very end, finales and encores having been the moments for which Michael had traditionally saved his worst excesses. It was more predictable that first-up Mariah Carey would be perpetrator of the least effective tribute, perhaps because watching Carey it is hard to believe she ever considers herself secondary to whatever the main event might be. But after her cleavage-heavy, hand-waving hike through each of her octaves on I’ll Be There, overwrought glamour was hard to find.
Who on Earth expected a fresh Maya Angelou poem, deftly delivered by Queen Latifah?
Or the heirs of Martin Luther King, on civil rights?
Or Nelson Mandela, in a tribute read by Smokey Robinson?
Such names make it hard to argue this was a mindless whitewash, unless you want to make a case for the casual co-option of several secular saints. In the face of all that, asking whether Jackson made a difference in the realm of race seems churlish for now, though that debate won’t die with him, any more than the argument over Elvis’s bona fides as an honoree black man has eased 55 years on.
Brooke Shields made other questions easier to answer: the glamour had indeed been left at home. Her star-wattage dimmed by grief to a dignified and appropriate grey, presenting as just a friend in mourning, Shields reflected with touching familiarity and affection on the childhoods she and Jackson had been lost to stardom.
Again, the cynical can argue that a bruised childhood is Jackson’s only defence against his adult weirdness, and that a Brooke Shields or someone like her had to be trotted out to make the only credible case for sympathy. With Shields’ guileless testimony, the defence had three advantages: poignancy, at least partial truth, and the fact that the man/boy in question she spoke of is now dead.
Under such circumstances, generalities seemed fair. The specifics were avoided at both extremes – no direct reference to the alleged paternal abuse that scarred the childhood, and no direct reference to the alleged abuse of children that destroyed the adult. This was fairness to the living as well as the dead, and in the front row, Joseph Jackson was surely grateful some things were left unsaid.
Diana Ross attended only on paper, her tribute read out at the start. Elizabeth Taylor had begged off via Twitter, saying Michael would have wanted her grief to remain private.
The Taylor Tweet seemed a hint that the event was going to be even more tacky than movie royalty of her stature could bear, but it turned out to be an indicator of the opposite. Perhaps this service would not have been blowsy and overblown enough for the larger-than-life Liz, who would have emoted her way on to living room floors from Tokyo to Tehran. Jackson friend Liza Minnelli, another guaranteed lip-wobbler, was likewise absent.
This was a day scaled to accommodate only one over-achieving but under-lived life, and it was a day on which things were largely left to speak for themselves. Whatever way you wanted to look at it, the life and death that prompted what Liz Taylor called this “whoopla” was sad, and it was no time for screaming out in love or in loathing.
Who’d have thought a Jackson farewell would score points for understatement? Probably not the man himself. But would he have approved?
History suggests Jackson’s inclination would have been for more bells and whistles at his final show. Watching it, one couldn’t help wondering when his coffin might rise, swivel or shake, or come alive with flashing lights or dancing chimps. Many would have expected a mad giggle or two from this funeral. But there were none, and that was a blessing.
At last someone else had taken charge. Jackson’s family - who for all their imagined dysfunction had stood by him through the worst, including a criminal trial - would seem to have come through once more at the end, doing their best to make him a man again.
And after all the years of turning our eyes away from him, this was the final surprise: that we’d want to take another look.
Two bookends to this service gave us permission to do so.
Stevie Wonder, a man who’d never actually seen his friend, sang with a broken heart. He was astonishing enough to raise the question of what you might feel if your mind’s view of Jackson was based on something sensed more deeply than horrified eyes alone. Wonder might have been the most blessed of all mourners: when he pictured Michael Jackson, he could see only a voice, as surely as Jackson’s kids could see only a father.
And after today, Jackson’s legacy will always have Paris. The final blessing on stage from his teary but determined daughter – one of the masked and mysterious children – turned out to be the star’s final and least likely claim on normality, and on grief that did not require excuses.
Had she finally been freed? Had he? As Paris wept her words of tribute, and with father and daughter at liberty for a day to be their best selves, it was hard not to think there was fresh life to be found in the man and in the legend.
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