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The Waste of Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson wasted his talent, money, health and, utlimately, life.

As Michael Jackson is celebrated, we can reflect sadly on how he wasted his talent, his time, his money, his health, and his racial identity.

Talent. Michael Jackson had immense talent, perhaps unfortunately manifested when he was a boy of 8. His gifts shone through collaboration, starting with his puppeteer of a father, who made Jackson and his brothers into the highly successful Jackson 5. The group ran through the Motown catalogue, with Jackson, as a child, playing the role of love balladeer Smokey Robinson. Jackson moved on to work with top choreogaphers, directors, and musical arrangers - most notably in his record-shattering video (directed by John Landis) and album (produced by Quincy Jones), Thriller. But he couldn't maintain this level of creative collaboration, and his talent dissipated - expressing itself finally mainly in his remarkable gifts as a dancer and performer. At the same time, he dreaded - and was obviously no longer emotionally and physically capable of - continuing to perform.

Time. New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, in a column entitled Behind the Façade, detailed how Michael Jackson frittered away his time on empty illusion. Charged with presenting Jackson with an award, Herbert was struck with how Jackson "seemed, even then (in his twenties), to be a person who was trying with all of his being to step outside of reality and leave it behind." Accompanied by child actor Emmanuel Lewis - who "was probably 13 at the time, but he looked much younger. . . Jackson seemed to relate only to Lewis. He made faces at the tiny boy and giggled as Lewis hopped around and climbed over furniture, much to Jackson's delight. I remember thinking. . . that Jackson had treated Lewis almost as a pet."

Money. Although Jackson earned billions over his lifetime, he was estimated to be $400,000,000 in debt when he died. What did he spend his money on? One estimate is that Michael Jackson spent a half billion dollars ($500,000,000) on himself over his life. This included his million dollar shopping sprees; his Neverland ranch (with the exotic animals, amusement park rides, and house loaded with the ultimate in special features); a constantly shifting staff of cooks, health care personnel (who has a cardiologist live with them full time?), go-fors, and paid companions; his drug supplies; his plastic surgeries; his foolish business decisions.

Health. It is highly unusual for a person not stricken by a fatal disease or killed by violence or an accident to die at age 50. Yet Michael Jackson seemed intent on killing himself. To judge from descriptions by his friends (like Uri Geller and Deepak Chopra) and caretakers, he imbibed a never-ending cocktail of drugs - including painkillers, sleep aids, and anti-anxiety bromides. Jackson seemed to lack the idea that being naturally conscious of his own self was a reasonable way to lead his life. (In this respect, at least, he is similar to many of his fellow Americans).

Racial Identity. Although one of the greatest claims for Michael Jackson is that he crossed over as an artist from the African American to the white entertainment worlds, he did so at the cost of trying to become a white person. He ruined his facial features - his face always seemed in danger of melting and falling to the ground - to create a caricature of a white nose. Who knows what damage he did to himself bleaching his skin (through injecting, ingesting, or applying chemicals). His hair was one more example of his renunciation of pride in his African-American features - so evident in his youthful appearance and that of his brothers. And, most shocking of all, Michael Jackson ended his racial blood line by creating children who are self-evidently white - he not only selected white mothers for them, but seemingly had the women inseminated with someone else's sperm, to judge from the children's appearance. To think otherwise is to accept the Lysenkan model of inheritance - that by turning himself into a white man, Jackson was able to father white offspring. This apparently was the only way he could love them.

P.S. (July 9): Although I found his memorial maudlin and insincere (Brook Shields weeped through her tribute to their friendship, but admitted to reporters she hadn't seen Jackson at all since 1991), his daughter's tribute to her father was genuinely touching. Michael Jackson loved his kids. Of course, love and a desire to protect his offspring wasn't sufficient motivation for Michael to keep himself alive.

P.S. (August 2, 2009): Here's praise for Michael Jackson.