A funny sort of thing happened on Thursday when word of Michael Jackson's death started to sink in to our cultural psyche: We weren't sure how to react.
While it's true that scores of Jackson fans gathered outside the UCLA Medical Center where Jackson had been rushed by paramedics and the news propelled sales of Jackson's songs on Amazon, many of us hesitated. Reminiscences of Jackson's infectious hits were tempered by the ugly reality of multiple charges of child molestation, the man's seeming inability to cope with the world and his outre habits (children draped in veils, packing his one-time mansion Neverland with a village-worth of hideous life-sized dolls.)
The memory of Michael Jackson, King of Pop, was threatened by Wacko Jacko, increasingly reclusive and derided freakazoid.
But is it possible to honor one while continuing to back away from the other? To reconcile the very real disdain for the man while at the same time recognizing his music as every bit worthy of praise? And by admitting that we appreciate the art of someone we may find morally objectionable are we selling out our own ethics?
Michael Jackson isn't the first person to inspire the question. Writing about classical musicians who were openly anti-Semitic or aligned themselves with Germany's Nazi regime retired music critic Dimitri Drobatschewsky wrote:
Unfortunately, there are so many "unsavory characters" in the world of art, science, literature and general culture that if you boycotted their given genius, there would be precious little art left to enjoy.
And therein lies the rub. If one looks closely enough, uncomfortable realities can probably be found for many of pop culture's venerated artists -- big and small: Mel Gibson, who is slowly working his way back into Hollywood's mainstream despite his 2006 anti-Semitic, sexist rant. Woody Allen, who continues to attract A-list talent, critical praise and audiences for his films despite being roundly criticized for romancing and marrying his stepdaughter. Amy Winehouse, who despite an inability to pull herself from the clutches of addiction and really bad paparazzi moments, still has an undeniably beautiful and original voice.
Does an appreciation of "Billie Jean" or "Rock With You" mean we're giving Jackson a pass for what -- if nothing else -- were inappropriate relationships with minors? No. And here's why:
For many artists -- Van Gogh, Franz Kafka, Marilyn Manson -- art is an expression of one's demons. For Michael Jackson art -- in the form of pop music -- represented liberation from those demons.
Jackson's music wasn't in any way a reflection of his personal life. It was a place Jackson was able to supersede his timidity and failings -- to be "Bad" (meaning good), to look at "The Man in the Mirror" ("If you wanna make the world a better place," Jackson sang, "Take a look at yourself and then make a change.") and to label himself "Unbreakable." In no song did he encourage dangerous liaisons with unlawful partners or ask his listeners to follow him down the road to disfiguring plastic surgery. Jackson instead transcended his image as a man-boy prone to eccentricity and became the unchallenged King of Pop.
And that is the image that will stick for most of his fans. As D.C. resident Akil Wilson says in this video interview after hearing about Jackson's death, "Some people are better as thoughts than as actual physical manifestations ... this Mike that existed from the '90s on, he just wasn't a real person."