Pity Michael Jackson. Of course, that’s after checking off a long list of other justifiable reactions to the sad, clown-like figure whose trial on child molestation and other charges is now getting under way in California with all the solemnity of a circus. Amazement, impatience, sympathy, repugnance, nostalgia, boredom: Americans must have felt them all over the years watching the former King of Pop’s life spin ever more dizzyingly downward. Or maybe it was spinning outward — to some non-Earthly realm for which Neverland, the name of Mr. Jackson’s ranch, is clearly the best word.
There never was such a land as the one in which he has tried, or pretended, to exist. Still, in the end, pity prevails, as it must when a human being comes so publicly undone.
Here are two other reasons why pity is the fallback emotion in this case, at least for now. One, it doesn’t prejudge Mr. Jackson’s guilt or innocence; on that score, the jury is not only still out, it hasn’t even been selected. And two, though nobody wants pity, in this instance it also represents a kind of tribute. One of the main reasons the “Wacko Jacko” of today is so pitiable is precisely that the man, and before him the boy we now barely remember, was so talented and charismatic an entertainer. Before the delusions of grandeur set in, he really was as good as they come. The American satirist Jon Stewart said recently that real news in the Michael Jackson case would be if the star were actually to release a decent song. And it’s true, it has been a while. But that’s part of the pity: No matter what happens in the courtroom, the loss, the fall, has been great.
Here in Japan, where Mr. Jackson probably remains more popular than in his own country, there are plenty of fans who share that feeling. It is not all about the songs and the moonwalk anymore, admittedly, and it hasn’t been for a long time. An American professor who wrote a book titled “The Frenzy of Renown” has attributed Mr. Jackson’s appeal in recent years more to “people’s fascination with the dark side of things.” People keep track of him, the professor said, for “the same reason that you would look at a car wreck when you go by it, but [with] the added glow of it being a car with someone’s name and exploits you’re familiar with.”
Mr. Jackson’s fans abroad are as susceptible to sensation as anyone. But there is a sense that people here might be less disposed to rush to judgment — and that even when judgment is rendered, a guilty verdict would not bring opprobrium so much as sadness. It is not even unthinkable that an acquittal could trigger a revival of Mr. Jackson’s international career, at least if he could come up with those decent songs.
It’s hard to see that happening in the United States, where years of being the butt of late-night comedy jokes and Internet gibes may already have done too much damage. A sample of one of the more printable, though also one of the cruelest: “It was reported the other day that Michael Jackson wants to be one of the first civilians to travel into space. A spokesperson for NASA said, ‘We’re fine with the idea, but the only problem is Jackson insists on coming back.’ ” In America, it seems, the star is now a dead man moonwalking.
The nail in the coffin has undoubtedly been this trial. Years of rumors and gossip have finally crystallized into a series of nine felony charges, including conspiracy to abduct a child and multiple counts of administering an intoxicating agent and committing “lewd acts” upon a child. There is only one plaintiff, and no consensus as to the likely outcome. But in the court of U.S. public opinion, Mr. Jackson appears to have been already tried and found guilty. The upshot is the spectacle of a man at the rock-bottom of his life. There is nothing — wealth, fame, fans, family — that can mitigate the awfulness of the situation in which he now finds himself. Hence the pity.
Pity is not the same as an excuse. In the event of a guilty verdict, the child in this case — a cancer patient who was 13 at the time of the alleged abuses — would deserve infinitely more of it than Mr. Jackson. But it is not exclusive, either. It is possible to pity the accused here as well as the accuser. For Mr. Jackson was himself legendarily mistreated as a child, forced from the age of 5 into the straitjacket of superstardom and adult-intensive work. In some ways, as he has admitted, he has spent his adult life trying to have the childhood he missed. No one should be surprised that it proved not the idyll he dreamed of, but a grotesque travesty.
Whether it also degenerated into the criminal will be up to those unfortunate Californian jurors to decide.
Either way, there is no joy on the horizon for a troubled man who brought joy to many millions of people — and no satisfaction for anyone in the prospect of his trial.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.