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I got a text from one of my friends: "Do you believe Michael Jackson died?"
Of course I didn't believe it. Or more correctly couldn't. Or more correctly can't.
Michael Jackson doesn't just up and die, right? Michael Jackson doesn't just have a heart attack and get driven in an ambulance to a hospital to die. It's too normal, maybe even too human.
The idea of Michael Jackson as a mythological figure isn't anything new. No one gets as universally famous as he did without attaining something close to demigod status. The many eccentricities that he personally confirmed only fed rumors of other, weirder eccentricities that may or may not have been real--and his unwillingness to definitively address them led the public to consider every tale equally true. In turn that made Jackson seem all the more mythological.
In the 80s and 90s certain countercultural types liked to riff on the concept of a Church of Elvis, but when you get right down to it, Elvis's mythos is too tame to support a church--even a fake church. Aside from the interior design at Graceland and the massiveness of his pill habit, there wasn't much supernatural or bizarre about the guy. As far as kinks go, girls in white cotton panties barely even registers. And who wouldn't like a deep-fried peanut butter and banana sandwich?
But Michael Jackson, on the other hand, has barely been recognizable as a human being for decades now. Even before he started looking like an alien, he seemed to act like one. You had to wonder what kind of person has a chimp for a best friend, fathers secret children that he hides behind veils, and frolics in a personal amusement park fraught with dangerous psychological implications ("Neverland") while dressed as an implausibly fabulous military dictator--which why not, because he was richer and more powerful than any banana republic autocrat.
He was too bizarre, too far off the map. It's telling that, though Jackson denied it, the rumor about him sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber never really went away. No one could quite believe that he was human.
Maybe it's because he was so inhumanly good at what he did. A lot of people literally couldn't believe the moonwalk when he debuted it. They thought it was a special effect. And while there were many Elvis wannabes who were better at being Elvis--or at least better at the singing and dancing and acting parts, if not the je ne sais quoi--no one was a better Michael Jackson than Michael Jackson. Countless people have been emulating him for decades now, and nobody's ever done it better.
The first person I thought about after I accepted the news was this Michael Jackson impersonator I remember performing every weekend in this one little alleyway in downtown Ann Arbor. He didn't really do the costume thing too seriously--no sequined military jacket or anything--but he had obviously studied Michael's movements so deeply and practiced them for so many unimaginable hours that every one of his moves, even simple gestures, was uncannily Michael-like. You could watch him for hours, literally. He was there all day--every Sunday, I think it was.
I don't know what to call that kind of devotion except religious. That impersonator's obvious spiritual dedication and the physically demanding form his worship took were like something out of a medieval monastery. He probably had more in common with holy men on the other side of the globe than with those of us who stopped on the sidewalk to watch him for a minute. I wonder how many more guys like that are out there, and I wonder what they're feeling tonight.