When I was ten years old, during recess the kids in my class would hover around a ghetto blaster playing Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” and we would break dance. Thirty white kids at a Jewish school spending all of our spare time perfecting our respective moonwalks. Such is the power of fame.
One dancer reveals that he’s searching for something to believe in, to make his life better – and this is it.
Nowhere is this clearer than while watching “This is It,” the new movie which documents the final weeks of Michael Jackson’s life with behind the scenes footage of what was to be his farewell tour. Indeed the movie opens with interviews of various hopefuls who are trying out for a spot in Jackson’s dance troupe. Each of them explains why they want in so badly and their reasons are somewhat startling: this will be the best experience of their lives; Jackson means so much to them; this is all they ever wanted to do and so on.
But one dancer reveals even more. He admits that his life is difficult. He’s hit rock bottom. He’s searching for something to believe in, something to make his life better -- and this is it.
“This is it.”
There’s something sad in this revelation, and I suspect he’s speaking for many of us fans. Why was Jackson so important to us? Because he was a great dancer? A talented singer? An excellent performer?
Jackson was indeed all of these things, and this is abundantly evident watching the movie. He can still dance, and can still sing. At 50, it’s quite remarkable.
“This Is It” will no doubt please Jackson fans for those reasons. It also contains most of Jackson’s best known hits, and even features a remarkable new Thriller video. One can’t help but feel that this would have been a fantastic farewell tour. It’s a shame.
I think Jackson himself was aware of the danger lurking behind the cult of celebrity.
But this isn’t the only shame. The reverence with which Jackson is treated in the movie, and during his lifetime, is troubling. There are moments when those watching Jackson’s performances during the movie are what one should expect: singing along, enjoying the return of a talented performer. But there are times when the people watching whip themselves into such a frenzy of dancing and cheering that it borders on worship. In fact, at one point Kenny Ortega, the director of both the film and the entire tour, says “It’s like a church in here. The church of rock 'n roll.” And therein lies the problem.
When did we as a society begin worshipping singers, actors, athletes, or any human beings really? Why can’t we restrain ourselves and enjoy someone’s talent without elevating him to a superhuman level? Clearly Jackson’s personal life demonstrated that he had his fair share of problems. So why do we pretend otherwise?
The cult of celebrity has become such a potent force that it borders on dangerous and I think Jackson himself may have even known this. While he loved performing for his fans -- the movie makes this clear -- he did not enjoy the severe public scrutiny. And we fans are partly to blame for this. Perhaps if we had treated him as a performer rather than a prophet, things would have ended differently for him.
I think one of Jackson’s songs even alludes to his wish that people look inwards instead of outward to a “savior.” “This Is It” ends on this note, with Jackson’s popular song “Man in the Mirror:”
I'm starting with the man in the mirror
I'm asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you wanna make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself and then make a change
Perhaps on this one we should all take Jackson’s advice.