The Message of Michael Jackson

So many, many people around the world are sharing their thoughts about what Michael Jackson's death means to them. This is one of those events people will be asking about for years to come: "Where were you when Michael died?"

I grew up with Michael Jackson. I'm only four years older than he was when he died, so I have followed his career virtually my whole life. After all, if you owned a radio or TV during those years, there's no way you could have avoided him.

I remember being introduced to him on television as part of the Jackson 5, whose fresh, upbeat sound made for instant and wild success. I remember being lifted by his popular songs of the early '80s--I can't hear songs like "Rock with You" without recalling those early mornings during seminary when my clock radio alarm went off to the sounds of Top 40 radio. I remember following the news stories about all the various accusations, court cases, plastic surgeries, and odd behaviors in more recent years.

His comeback concerts, which had been scheduled to begin this July, had so much riding on them: His reputation for musical brilliance was at stake, and so apparently was his financial future. His health had in recent years been precarious, and adding this immense burden couldn't have been easy.

Through it all I have sensed what Deepak Chopra has described as the "mixture of mystery, isolation, indulgence, overwhelming global fame, and personal loneliness" that marked his life.

What was it about Michael Jackson that has caused such an outpouring of emotion? Obviously, his immense talent. But he also had a vulnerability and a childlikeness that caused people to care personally about him--despite all his issues. His peculiar actions, his efforts to change his appearance, his legal and financial troubles, all of it caused us to feel sorry for this young man who never seemed to grow up. His childlike wonder in the end became, to one degree or another, pathological. Apparently he tried to find meaning in life through faith, moving from Jehovah's Witnesses to the Nation of Islam to Islam itself--but how successfully we will likely never know.


We will hear and read and see much about his life and his death in the days to come. Much of it will be heartbreaking. But let's hope the creative joy that he shared with the world through his music will rise above it all. Michael Jackson sang of love, of peace, of joy, of hope, of siblinghood, of togetherness, and, okay, sometimes of zombies.

And once again, we realize that the messenger is but a clay vessel that breaks, but the message... well, let's hope the message is heard forever. I guess we'll all have to sing it now.