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07.07.09

Michael Jackson's Afterlife

Celebrating the King of Pop’s many gifts is fair enough. Making him into a saint, not so much.

Today we witnessed the apotheosis of Michael Jackson.

To hear Berry Gordy tell it, Jackson was “the greatest entertainer that ever lived.” According to the seemingly ubiquitous Al Sharpton, Michael Jackson deserves as much or more credit than Martin Luther King for the success of black achievers from Tiger Woods to Barack Obama.

Yes, this is a sad day but not because we are mourning the passage of the King of Pop. He’s been long gone, really. The real pity is that today’s spectacle demonstrates that a big segment of our society remains fully capable of deliberate blindness. That was obvious when Sharpton declared in defiant tones that there was “nothing wrong with Michael Jackson” and was answered by thunderous applause. Even Martin Luther King’s children helped with the ritual, as his daughter edged “accusations” against him into “persecutions.”

Even Martin Luther King’s children helped with the ritual, as his daughter edged “accusations” against him into “persecutions.”

Celebrating Jackson’s gifts is fair enough. Making him into a saint, not so much. If romance is the willing suspension of disbelief, turning Michael Jackson into a deity is a willing suspension of belief in what we know to be true. And as a country, we can’t afford to live in Neverland any more.

Despite Sharpton’s assertion that nothing was wrong with Jackson, everything about him had become a mess: his physical and mental condition, his finances, his medical records, and now his estate. The music and the dancing were unforgettable but what I can’t forget is the appalling degree to which Jackson was both victim and victimizer.

When the old photos of that wide-eyed little boy were on the monitor, it reminded me that Jackson was another abused child star whose torment became manifest in every imaginable way. When Berry Gordy said that Jackson, as a 10-year-old, sang with “the sadness and passion of a man who had been living the blues and heartbreak his whole life,” it struck me that very possibly the 10-year-old Jackson had done exactly that.

And what about the other little boys? If Jackson dodged the bullet on child-molestation charges, does he seem like an innocent man? Who hands over a settlement worth more than $20 million if there was no crime? Something indeed was wrong with Michael Jackson. He stood repeatedly accused of a crime so heinous that most people would not want anyone facing those allegations living on their block. Unless, of course, that individual was a celebrity.

As St. Michael rose into the clouds this afternoon, other reality-based thoughts persistently intruded into my reality-addicted mind. At this time of crisis on many fronts, I couldn’t help thinking about the media’s prolonged prostitution of itself to this event. At a time of financial ruin, the city of Los Angeles has been asking citizens to donate money to help pay for the management of this spectacle.

As we have already learned, Jackson’s death may produce more profit than the improbable comeback tour that those around Jackson persisted in believing was possible for the frail, skeletal individual who they supposedly so loved. No doubt Jackson will be as ruthlessly exploited in death as he was in life.

And there was one big bonus winner at the Jackson service. Can you guess? When Magic Johnson described his delight at learning that Jackson loved Kentucky Fried Chicken, it’s easy to imagine that there was celebrating at the Colonel’s headquarters. A double celebrity endorsement, seemingly a spontaneous gift from the celebrity gods! I can’t imagine that the KFC people—still getting over that little dustup over the Oprah giveaway—aren’t even now figuring out how to make the most of that.

Kim Masters covers the entertainment business for The Daily Beast. She is also the host of The Business, public radio's weekly program about the business of show business. She is also the author of The Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everybody Else.