April 29, 2011. London. Westminster Abbey groans under its own weight in flowers and a nation prays for the sun to shine. A centuries old country hyperventilates as it waits for a young Prince and a young woman who would become a Princess – well, Duchess as it turned out – to kiss. The level of anticipation and interest in Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding, building in the weeks and days before the big day, powered not only by a media whipped frenzy, but out of the massive desire to see the eldest son of the late ex-Princess of Wales make his choice before an audience of billions. Lady Diana Spencer, self-confessed ‘Queen of Hearts,’ was for many both in England and overseas, the real heroine of the Royal Family. And it was the memory of the joyous potential a young Diana’s own wedding represented and the huge sorrow and anger her death precipitated – that gave her son’s wedding the pathos and historic power it did.
The reality that it was in fact Diana’s death that revitalized the mythology and popularity of the British Royals is a deeply ironic one. Subjected to hostile media headlines after Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s marriage collapsed – in the wake of Diana’s death, the Royal family achieved its lowest approval ratings since King Edward VIII abdicated in 1936. Miraculously, that same Royal Family now enjoys the new affection that has transferred from the people’s adoration and respect for Diana – a respect she earned, to her first-born, Prince William.
The political Establishment, Royal family and still prevalent ruling class in British society, shunned Diana for her seemingly unpredictable informality and distinctly modern way of relating to a people the British constitution stubbornly defines as subjects. But the reason why Diana herself manifestly rejected the destiny that had been carefully mapped out for her, and was then rejected by the Establishment for that snub, was this singularity: Her refusal to accept a loveless marriage. That generations of Royal wives and aristocrats before her had put up with unhappy, arranged marriages and done so silently, did not change Diana’s mind or subsequent acquiescence to divorce.
Diana; the shy girl who became a woman before the world’s lens, portrayed then (and still now in some quarters), as weak, stupid – and famously, by parliamentary member Nicholas Soames on the BBC’s flagship, political TV program, Newsnight, in November 1995, after Diana’s interview with Martin Bashir as – suffering from ‘mental illness’ and in the ‘advanced stages of paranoia’– simply said ‘No.’ Deciding the vows she made during her 1981 wedding – not to mention the intrusive media she undeniably became a victim of – could no longer be honored if the husband she made them to did not love her exclusively: Diana made a choice. Though that choice would expose her increasingly to the aggressive attentions of a rapacious press who would not be ignored, one question amongst many bears asking: Would Diana have done anything differently if she still had the chance to choose between a loveless commitment or personal freedom and self worth? One suspects the answer would be no.
And it is this truth, in addition to Diana’s extensive philanthropic work – that is her greatest legacy. It is why the moniker ‘Queen of Hearts’ still has real potency and longevity. The example she set for her children and to the world: that no amount of privilege or perceived social status could ever compensate for the misery and pain that a life of emotional deception entailed – remains a bold and powerful one. The sole reason why Prince William’s marriage to Kate Middleton caught the imagination and hearts of millions around the world is simple: He married for love. And that choice, that one decision, will now ripple glorious effect into the generations that will result from it.
In the BBC’s evening coverage of the event, British reporter Andrew Wilson commenting, stated this truly unprecedented fact: “For the first time in over three hundred years, a future monarch has looked outside the inner circle for his bride – and brought her home.” This was Diana’s true gift. Diana bequeathed to her children the necessity of living an authentic life no matter how difficult, and the value and need for authentic love to fill that life. The first of her sons has now opened that gift. That is the power of legacy.
Legacy. A curious word. It applies to bloodlines of inherited wealth and historic families, and equally it applies to every human being. Who we are, how we live, and what we give during the lifetimes we are assigned – are key parts of sum we leave behind. And across the pond Michael Jackson also leaves a legacy to his children, and to the world. Like Diana, Michael used his fame, time and energy – not to mention millions of dollars – to positively benefit the lives of others. And like Diana, Michael also lived his life under unimaginable scrutiny. In Diana’s latter years however, the albeit tenuous respect afforded her by the media in Britain after her divorce and new relationships, not to mention the still rapturous media she enjoyed in America and around the globe, were exponentially more humane than that extended to Michael Jackson. While both these public figures endured violating levels of media attention, Michael did so for far longer and on a much more malevolent scale.
Yet there remain striking connections between these two icons; similarities which apparently Michael and Diana were themselves well aware of. In a 1997 interview on the popular television program 20/20, American host Barbara Walters revealed that the last two concerts of the European leg of the ‘HIStory’ tour were dedicated to Diana after Michael learned of her death. Poignantly, in that interview Michael revealed that during one of those concerts he had this thought of the late princess. “I love you Diana. And shine on forever, because you are the true Princess of the people.” Interestingly, Michael’s choice of words here completely negates the media mischaracterization of him as being unaware of, or unable to understand the politick of the real world. Clearly Michael understood the deep insult and exclusion the British establishment intended Diana when, as a condition of her divorce settlement, it was insisted that the title of ‘Princess’ be removed from Diana’s official ranking as a Royal.
By referring to Diana as a ‘Princess of the People’ before an audience of millions, Michael stated the obvious: that after her death Diana was – in truth – this even more so. Symbolically too, since Jackson is known throughout the world as the ‘King of Pop,’ by declaring his sense of empathy with Diana and her struggles, Michael expressed in words the resonance and connection he felt with Diana that, in fact, exists on a number of levels. Many celebrities do good works, endorsing a charity is de rigueur for any modern PR savvy star. What made Michael and Diana so different was the way they gave to others, the overriding sense they did it from a place of compassionate service; not out of duty or because it would ‘look good.’ The similarities do not end there. Both Michael and Diana met not only untimely deaths – but violent ones. One, the result of a high speed chase through Parisian streets by paparazzi on motorcycles; the other, at the hands of a prima facie acutely negligent physician treating his patient with inappropriate drugs for relief from chronic insomnia. The grief that attended both these deaths was compounded by the certain knowledge that they were both overwhelmingly unnecessary.
Only the most imperceptive would deny that Jackson’s insomnia was undoubtedly the result of a life massively traumatized. Even for someone used to living in the glare of uber fame, the level of stress, abuse and cruelty Jackson had to deal with, went far beyond what any individual could healthily be expected to cope with. Indeed there is an argument – a strong one –for contending that Jackson would never even have arrived at a point in his life where he felt he needed doctors around him constantly, had the media persecution which came his way not been so unrelentingly vicious. Used to being bundled through the back doors of hotels and venues long before he hit his teens, Michael often said he had ‘rhinoceros skin.’ Clearly he did not. And now the toll of false allegations exacerbated and perpetuated in the public consciousness by the overtly malicious, commercially-driven marketing of Jackson as some sort of monstrous harmer of children by at least two generations of journalists, editors and TV pundits across the spectrum of media – now undeniably threatens the positive truth of his legacy. And it is that threat that has united many in one outstanding purpose: Restoration.
The reality that Michael Jackson remains the one of world’s least celebrated humanitarians, and despite fourteen emphatic ‘Not Guilty’ verdicts in the criminal trial of 2005, has not as yet been vindicated in the actual – is testament to the enduring power of perception. This perception of ‘guilt’ dominated Jackson news stories while he was alive and continues even after his death. Present day media comment in the run-up to the Conrad Murray trial that only hinted at the ‘demanding addict’ sub-text has now exploded into full blown accounts of ‘drugs found in the Neverland raid,’ and horrifically, graphic speculation about what the autopsy pictures may look like. It is evidence that the powerful and pervasive Fourth Estate shows no sign yet of any desire to recant the years of distortion they issued into the public domain. Many believe this state of affairs to be insurmountable. The question is, is it?
Years of self-serving media narrative will take certainly take time to be righted. But the journey back has begun, and it has begun in earnest. One way this is being achieved can be seen in the new narratives now surfacing. Amidst the wealth of rush-to-copy, mostly picture books releases that hit the market soon after Michael’s death, others have sought to push back the years of media misrepresentation and actually honor an exceptional life. To date, three publications are notable. American journalist, Aphrodite Jones’s ‘Michael Jackson Conspiracy’ published pre-2009 in 2007, details the extent of a preconceived negative bias within the U.S media towards Jackson and how that was reflected both during, and after, their coverage of Jackson’s 2005 trial. Post 2009, Bruce Swedien, noted recording engineer, released ‘In the Studio with Michael Jackson.’ In it, Swedien takes it back to the music, tracing the beginnings of his working relationship with Jackson from as far back as The Wiz through to HIStory – and does Jackson great service throughout. More recently, Joe Vogel’s new work, ‘Man in the Music: The Creative life and work of Michael Jackson,’ set for international release in October 2011, also promises to positively contribute to Jackson’s legacy – simply by returning the conversation to Michael’s commitment and service to the creation of phenomenal music, dance and visual art.
In the arena of journalism, Jones’s work with Discovery Investigation via her True Crime television programs has so far made modest impact on the prevailing smirking content found in the majority of current media, but these are early days. Similarly, British journalist, Charles Thomson, in hugely important articles on Huffington Post and elsewhere, has consistently exposed the damaging inaccuracies about the legal challenges faced by Jackson – inaccuracies still recycled ad nauseam by the media. In addition, a multitude of positive articles and interviews from people who knew Jackson personally (and some who didn’t) – such as David Nordahl, Thomas Mesereau, Elizabeth Taylor, Susan Fast, Stephen King, Jeff Koopersmith, Forbes Everett Landis, Michael Bearden, Linda Deutsch, Armand White, Stuart Backerman, Matt Semino, Dr Patrick Treacy, Barbara Amiel, Jonathan Margolis, Dave ‘Dave,’ Ishmael Reed, Gerald L. Campbell, Wade Robson, Howard Bloom, testimonials from stars and those who worked with Michael professionally, and the many families who benefited from the outreach work Jackson did continually throughout his life; are all part of the new narrative that could potentially transform the destructive Jackson meme most of the media remains irrationally attached to.
Mention must also be given to a hugely ambitious project undertaken by Reverend Barbara Kaufmann. In 2010, Kaufmann, herself a minister, award winning writer, Huffington Post contributor and bright voice in the field of activism – gathered together a bank of exceptional articles, poetry and case studies, inspired by and dedicated to the lives and incompletely acknowledged achievements of both Lady Diana Spencer and Michael Jackson – as part of the collaborative ‘Words and Violence Project.’ It stands as a body of work that, in time, could one day be widely referred to and used by educational centers to further our society’s understanding of how words and media culture occupies a dual ability to both benefit and damage the lives it touches.
Likewise, a range of websites diligently compiling their respective collections of memories, anecdotes, stories, facts, and extent of the phenomenal philanthropic gift Jackson gave, are also contributing – some better than others – to the archiving of Michael Jackson’s legacy. While many of these sites focus only on the musical accolades and aesthetic of Jackson’s many ‘eras’ in his musical career, some notable ones go further and actively keep alight a true record of Michael Jackson’s compassionate legacy to a world that so dramatically refused it.
Among these, Michael Jackson Tribute Portrait. Represented by members and visitors from over 180 countries, 250 thousand so far (and counting) have signed up to be part of the largest [dot] comprised portrait of Michael Jackson ever commissioned. Also worthy of note is The Silenced Truth website. One of the first sites to draw attention to the gap in the world’s understanding of who Michael Jackson was, The SilencedTruth also hosts one of the most comprehensive lists of Jackson’s humanitarian contributions. Another site worthy of highlight is MJJ-777. Hosted by Jackson archivist Seven Bowie, it’s an exquisite repository. Rich in facts and a cultural breadth reflective of Jackson’s impact on the world, this site is a must-visit destination for not only fans, but all those who seek to expand their knowledge of Jackson. Also of note are the informational grand central stations in the forms of MJTruthNow, Vindicatemj, Reflections of the Dance, and the outstanding blog spots of smokeandmirrorsmj, gatorgirl277 and mjandjustice4some. To dismiss – as some do – the value of the work produced on these sites and blog spots as merely ‘fan’ sites hosting partisan perspectives, is to fail to comprehend the extent of the staggering research amassed on these demonstrably, credible sources.
The rejuvenation proper of Jackson’s official charitable legacy has still to be re-ignited since the Estate is still in probate and thus has to seek specific legal dispensation to make payments even to approved creditors. But as the executors – John Branca and John McClain – of the Estate of Michael Jackson expressed as recently as April 21, 2011 as part of a larger statement, their intention to make decisions and “… direct contributions to recipient charities … with complete regard to Michael’s wishes and Michael’s legacy, which we intend to honor and perpetuate ” – should assure those who need it that rejuvenation is indeed coming. The legal furore over the sensitive and complex settlement with Howard Mann and Melissa Johnson, who held the rights to various trademarks and control of the ‘Heal the World Foundation,’ itself an unauthorized impression of Michael Jackson’s original vision – has paradoxically within it the seeds of a new platform for the Estate, Michael Jackson’s family – and three children to go forward from an albeit clumsy beginning to a future that possibly reincarnates that vision.
On January 25, 2011, Zach O’Malley Greenburg of Forbes reported that the Estate of Michael Jackson earned $275 million more than Madonna, Beyonce, Lady Gaga and Jay-Z combined. An intimidating statistic considering the artist earning these gargantuan sums is in fact dead. But this also suggests that if speaking in purely monetary terms alone, the legacy of Michael Jackson is very much alive. Greenburg notes much of this boon was due to the commercial boost that nostalgia driven sales of ‘all things Michael’ received ‘following the King of Pop’s death,’ which of course indicates that the one thing the ‘Michael Jackson’ brand does not lack – is an audience.
In February of this year, the Estate of Michael Jackson declared it made over $310 million before debt clearance, and it is no doubt banking on that same audience to consume the array of Michael Jackson products now flooding the market. These include: the interactive dance game Michael Jackson the Experience, box-set Michael Jackson Vision, collector’s item Opus, the film This Is It, the Cirque du Soleil collaborative live extravaganza The Immortal World Tour, the Epic album releases – part of the Sony corporation, and a legion of Michael Jackson posters, T-shirts and merchandise etc, as well as the sales of Jackson’s peerless musical back-catalogue. None of this, of course, even takes into account the plans for a replica ‘Vegas Neverland,’ the revenue possibilities for the actual Neverland, and the over $1.5 billion estimated worth of the Sony/ATV catalogue jointly owned by the Estate and Sony. Yes, in purely monetary terms alone, legacy is big business.
But the success of a legacy turns on more than just balance sheets and portfolios. Clearly the Estate has already made more money than any of Michael’s three children could spend in a lifetime, and to those children it will not be their father’s money they remember – or long for. The lasting legacy of Michael Jackson will, in reality, rest on the de facto restoration of his rightful place as not only one of America’s greatest creative sons, but also one of her most unjustly judged. After death, a man (or woman’s) reputation is the unwritten text on which the memory of that individual falls or stands. The public’s insistence on an ambivalent collective relationship with Michael Jackson, and the American and British media’s engineering and perpetuation of that stance, however – is not fixed. Flux is inevitable, and the pendulum will swing. Perhaps to somewhere in the middle, or perhaps just beyond the catastrophic damage wrought by years of media malice and deception by characters that need no introduction here. That will not be good enough for many of course, but how far that pendulum swings will be down to the work of those actively involved in the work it will take to move it further.
The reshaping and restoring that Michael Jackson’s reputation deserves will need work to make that restoration a reality. But behind the scenes a body of people that combines fans, advocates and supporters, the Estate, the Jackson family, Jackson’s friends, the generations of fans yet to come – and perhaps Michael’s children; are all part of that groundswell. Just as Diana’s children now forge new destinies because of the gift their mother gave them, three voices bearing the name Jackson may one day join the force that now gathers pace but as yet lacks focus. Because the reality is this: it isn’t only love that survives. The lies that bind will remain as tightly fastened as they are allowed to – and Michael Jackson’s legacy demands nothing less than the truth.
by Deborah Ffrench
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