Everyone and his mother's uncle's second cousin is talking about Michael Jackson today. (Sorry Farrah.) Many are blogging and Tweeting about him. Lord knows I spent several hours doing just that and simultaneously texting, calling and emailing while live monitoring CNN and finishing up my client deadlines du jour. In the weirdest way, Michael Jackson's death proves just how adept we have all become at muti-tasking. How apropos.
There are many folks writing with great depth and emotion in very poetic ways about what Jackson meant to themselves and our culture. I won't even try to do that. Yet, as a publicist, when watching the endless media reels being run on the networks, I am transfixed by the true enigma that he was.
The single moment in the four decades of clips that captivates me is the infamous one in 2005 when he jumped up and danced on the roof of the S.U.V. Recall that minutes before he was being arraigned on the most heinous charges for which one could ever be accused. When viewing that tape, every astute publicist sees something very different than most people; we see a man of inordinate presence, acutely aware of and taking command of his image.
Seriously... I know, I know. That moment has been very justly lampooned and remains a point of ridicule, but that's because you're seeing it from the point of collective moral outrage. I can't argue with that. But hold on... slow down and really look at it again. Did you see it? He didn't start dancing right away. He waved hello to the throngs and then discreetly gestured to his personal documentarian to make sure the moment was captured from his vantage point. He was attempting to do what he truly did best: full concert orchestration. Unfortunately for him, he was not the conductor that day. Sadly, the media was one instrument Michael Jackson never mastered.
Plus, there it was, an audience. Every audience wants their performer on a stage, and every performer wants to be on that stage, whether it's a mega-arena or an S.U.V. It's where he belonged. It was a bosom of comfort beyond compare. Yet in high contrast, when Jackson was not on stage (even seconds before that particular moment), he was a man of such introversion that he believed the image that he had inside his own mind, completely oblivious to what the rest of the world saw.
I have many friends in the music industry. My grandfather played with the Dorsey Brothers band, so I grew up with a great affinity for that profession. Some of my friends have actually worked directly with Jackson. The tales they tell mesmerize. They describe Michael Jackson as a man of virtuoso mastery. There are those like Sinatra and Madonna who not only have a combination of organic instinct for entertainment and a vision for trend making, but very few can also master those elements plus the art itself: the art of vision and the artistry to bring that vision into being. A friend who was a session musician on the Dangerous album once described his experience to me. He said that Michael Jackson knew with great precision the music he wanted from each and every instrument. He also knew the audio mix he wanted and everything was created with a mind to the full stage production of the eventual tour.
Michael Jackson was the consummate composer, conductor and performer. Now that's a triple threat. We're talking a modern day Mozart... and pardon me if I digress, but perhaps that analogy is quite apt. The Austrian maestro was a child prodigy who had what three centuries later we would call a "Peter Pan" complex. He suffered eccentricities and proclivities of excess that scandalized a continent. Interestingly, the alternative title to his Marriage of Figaro is "La Folle Journee" or "Days of Enthusiasm."
When you have a world class amusement park in your front yard, you enjoy days of enthusiasm.
So imagine that in one incarnation you have someone of incomparable mastery in all aspects of one art form, music and music production. There are so few who can claim even that. Quincy Jones and Ray Charles come to mind. But then make the jump and realize that he had the same level of mastery and innovation for dance, choreography, as well as event production, marketing and promotion. That would be like Jackson's great friend Dame Elizabeth Taylor not only acting the roles but writing the words of Tennessee Williams, directing like Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and executive producing like Louis B. Mayer.
From the point of view of impact on pop culture therefore, the loss we collectively feel for Michael Jackson equates to John F. Kennedy or Elvis or John Lennon. But with the added perspective of artistry and industry, his impact broke through the stratosphere of those peers and blasted into an entirely different orbit.
So yes, it is easy to understand how some could easily drink the Kool-Aid (or Pepsi) of Michael Jackson. Yet no one could escape the high ick-factor cringe moments of the past 25 years: The mysteriously blanching visage. The nose. Bubbles the Chimp. The hyperbaric chamber. The onstage (and obviously staged) full French kiss with Lisa Marie Presley. The burka-draped Prince and Paris. The dangling of baby Blanket from the balcony. And the ultimate train wreck that was the Martin Bashir interview.
I've been delighted to be a member of the public relations industry for more than two decades now. When we convene our own would-be Algonquin Roundtables, my colleagues and I enjoy challenging each other as to how we would handle various PR disasters. By far the most interesting and stimulating conversations have always been around Michael Jackson.
Perhaps that was the King of Pop's biggest mistake with PR. Maybe he felt that as long as they are talking about you, you can never die. Well, at least his music is eternal.