Monday, July 13, 2009

Why So Many Were Moved By Michael Jackson’s Death

Michael Jackson’s memorial was watched by 37 million people in America, and millions more around the world. That doesn’t count those who mourned, yet were unable to watch the ceremony due to work or other responsibilities.

For some, the service brought comfort and closure. It gave them a chance to mourn and say goodbye. For others, the sadness has lingered. Or grief may have ebbed, only to reawaken when the media reports some new or old controversy, or questions arise about Michael’s way of life, why he died, where he’ll be buried, his estate, or his children.

Other people can’t understand why the media made a big deal over a man with such a questionable personal history. They wonder why fans and media are glossing over these flaws.

Whenever someone dies suddenly, it makes people stop, remember, and mourn. People realize that life is short. They stop and appreciate all they have and take the time to cherish loved ones.

If the deceased is a celebrity, especially someone who made an impact on people, the loss is shared by others. The sorrow over Michael’s loss is a universal expression of grief. Strangers are united in their memories of how that celebrity impacted their lives. People all over the country, and in Michael’s case, all over the world united in their mourning.

Many, especially in America, revere celebrities. Most people have the need to connect to (what they perceive is) something greater than themselves. Celebrities, with their talent, wealth, and glamorous lives can cause people to form imaginary relationships with them. And although the relationships may only exist in peoples’ heads, that doesn’t mean it isn’t very real for them.

The ability to imagine is part of being human, and people of all ages indulge in fantasies. However, adolescence is a time especially rich in fantasy life. For children of the 70’s and 80’s, Michael was a larger-than-life performer—someone who had the ability to electrify the audience with his intensity, his singing, and his dancing. As one friend described it to me, “He pretty much “owned” pop music at that time.”

The love of a song, of the singer, can unite people of different races, beliefs, ages, and social-economic status. In the 60’s and 70’s, Michael (and the Jackson 5) broke racial barriers, becoming revered by people of all races.

Through his music, Michael created experiences and provided memories.

His music (from the Jackson 5 or individually) has intertwined through peoples’ lives, either deliberately or unconsciously. (It’s difficult to live in America and not be aware of pop songs, if only because of the background music in stores and other venues.)

With artists, especially actors, musicians, and singers, or with sports figures, many people are able to separate “art” or “the game” from the performers’ personal lives. For example, we might disapprove of an actor’s lifestyle, but still choose to see her movies. We might revere a performer like Michael Jackson, even though he displays behavior that we’d never tolerate in those around us.

Yet, as Michael grew older, more reclusive, more bizarre, more controversial (especially the sexual abuse allegations), without generating new musical hits, many people set him aside. They considered him part of a bygone era.

Although his personal life may have tarnished his music for many, others continued to love him. And with his death, people remember a younger Michael, the one before the controversy--the one whose energy lit up the stage, and whose music and dancing touched lives.

His death makes people remember their memories of Michael, and thus they recall their own past. Over and over, I’ve heard people tell stories of when they first started listening to him. Maybe they attended a concert, or watched Thriller again and again. They might have tried to dance like him, or had movie posters in their bedrooms. Perhaps they had a romantic fantasy relationship with him. Maybe “We are the World” helped them feel more connected with humanity.

These people may grieve not only for Michael, but also for a time of life that’s gone. In their nostalgia, people also mourn their lost youth.

His death may also bring up sadness for the death of other loved ones, especially family and friends, but also the loss of other beloved celebrities. Remember the funerals of Princess Diana or John Kennedy Jr. Or recall the sadness of Heath Ledger’s death, or even going back to the deaths of Elvis or Marilyn Monroe due to drug overdoses.

Michael’s death is also a reminder that wealth doesn’t buy happiness. This is an even more poignant message in a struggling economy, where people are coming to value a simpler lifestyle. Michael had talent, wealth, and love. Yet all of that wasn’t enough to sooth his inner demons.

It’s painful to watch celebrities self-destruct. Too many have died because of the unhealthy choices they made in their lives.

The adulation of hundreds, thousands, or even millions, doesn’t fill up a person who feels empty inside. All the love and energy a performer absorbs while on stage, doesn’t remain. It only deflates, leaving behind someone who can feel even more lonely and empty. Drugs and alcohol are classic ways of trying to mask this kind of pain.

As long as someone is alive, there’s hope for change, for personal growth, and for peace for a troubled soul. But death is the final ending, and hope for Michael died with him.

People may mourn the future that might have been. Perhaps Michael could have made his comeback. Maybe he would have gotten the help he needed to heal his wounds and change his life. What music lies buried with him, never to be written, played, and performed--songs and performances to move us—to change the world?

Music is perhaps the closest thing to magic we have. Listening to a song or a piece of music can transform us, if only for a few minutes. It has the power to move us to tears, convey love, lift the spirit, unite a differing people, inspire creativity, tell a story, set feet to dancing, makes us hum and clap and sing, create a mood, and bring us close to God. The creators of music that touches peoples’ hearts become magicians, not just musicians.

Michael Jackson, the magician has died, but for his fans, his music will live on.


Dr. Debra Holland is a psychotherapist and corporate crisis counselor, who lives in Fullerton, CA.


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