You know how ambivalent I am about Michael Jackson. You can see that in my previous post. You know how I think many people have made great sacrifices and contributions, without the kudos bestowed on someone like Michael Jackson. I've written about that, too. And today I generally avoided the run-up to Michael's memorial, and the blather afterward. (And I hope the copyright on the memorial service doesn't mean it will be turned into profit-taking.) Still, I watched the memorial on TV, and here's my summation:
A good funeral makes you feel both the joy someone brought to the world, and the pain his or her passing causes. A great funeral makes you miss someone you didn't even know, to feel what those closest to the dead have felt. Michael Jackson didn't always get a good memorial service. But at times he got a great one.
The greatness came in things like Michael's daughter Paris's sudden declaration for "the best father you can ever imagine." Or in Michael's brother Marlon breaking down in tears as he said, "I hurt." Usher choking up. And, even more so, Brooke Shields's remarks, which were about a friend, about a playmate, about someone who was human in a way that Michael himself rarely seemed on the public stage.
It was as good a defense as could be made for Michael, though far from the only one. There was an edginess in Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee's declaration that "people are innocent until proven otherwise," and Rev. Al Sharpton's stormily telling Michael's children that "wasn't nothin' strange about your daddy." But those were comments made out of anger, and the day wasn't meant to be about anger. It was supposed to be about Michael's accomplishments, and the power of God and love.
God was often on the table, especially as speakers tried to understand how -- even though Michael was 50 years old -- he had been taken away in what seemed an abrupt fashion. So Stevie Wonder had to say, "I know that God is good" -- that God must have needed Michael more than the world did. And Smokey Robinson had to offer that "we have life after this is done." And even the opening of the service was about going to a better place, Michael's coffin being brought in while the choir sang "soon, very soon, we are going to see the King." (Given all that has been said of late about Michael's fixation on Elvis Presley, the line had more than one meaning.)
As for Michael's accomplishments, if the service overreached anywhere, it was in trying to offer a litany of his services to entertainment and humanity, ending the musical presentation with "We Are the World" and "Heal the World." More than once we were told he was "the greatest entertainer that ever lived," when that's a perception dependent often on your memory and your generation. Where Michael broke some racial barriers, Sharpton made it sound as if there had never been a civil-rights pioneer in entertainment before him. Having Martin Luther King III and Bernice King speak was yet another way of putting Michael on a historical footing, as if to provide the networks with a defense for their extreme amounts of coverage.
But that wasn't the stuff that was most affecting as the show went on, speech/music/speech/music, with the occasional clip. If you wanted to look at Michael the artist, look at "Ed Sullivan" clip of "Who's Loving You," a performance that both Robinson and Berry Gordy talked about. Anyone else trying to measure up was in trouble -- and Mariah Carey, for one, was not in good voice. Having Shaheen Jafargholi from "Britain's Got Talent" perform -- however much Michael may have admired him -- was just a reminder of how different and better Michael was. John Mayer was wise to offer only an instrumental interpretation of "Human Nature." Lionel Richie went his Commodores catalog for "Jesus Is Love."
But, again, the point of the service was to make us appreciate or understand Michael the man, flawed though he was. And that's where Shields's speech was so effective, as was Jermaine's performance of "Smile," said to be Michael's favorite song. If the memorial had moved Robinson's affectionate remarks and Usher's performance earlier, then ended with Shields and "Smile," it would have been sublime. Instead it lumbered along more, stumbled with things like the comments from Kenny Ortega (not only director of the planned Michael tour but the director of the "High School Musical" films) to set up a "We Are the World" which felt like some theme-park rehash. Only after the music, when Michael's death became personal again, when Marlon groaned and Paris lamented, did the ceremony break free of iconography. Then it was about a man. Then it had the power of loss.
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