The King and the King of Pop had a good deal more in common than musical innovation.
Elvis, son of an unsuccessful Mississippi sharecropper, came from hard times and rose above them. He reinvented popular music by successfully combining the three main aspects of American music tradition: mountain or “country” music, popular ballads, and soul. Not only did he do that, he helped facilitate the frame of mind that led to the civil rights reforms of the ’60’s and ’70’s, by bridging a cultural gap that had — except for jazz — remained largely untouched. He did that on his own, actively resisted by the musical Old Guard and much of conventional society as well. If music expresses the humanity of man, then Elvis Presley combined the streams of our musical perception and made us that much closer to being a human race, rather than races.
Michael essentially created a musical genre of his own, combining soul, disco and his own vision into performances that literally changed the face of popular music for a generation. We’ll never know if Jackson would have had the same influence had his chance not come at the same time as the birth of music videos and extravaganzas on the stage, but this is not meant to imply that he was just a showman. He, like Elvis, was a product of a traumatic childhood, and that is reflected in the nuances of his songwriting, his production values, and — most certainly — in the latter half of his professional career. His humanity, its image distorted but not beyond recognition, came through in his work.
Perhaps the forces that shape musical royalty — even celebrity in general — are fated to become the means of their downfall, as well as their muse. How many of our icons have we seen rise from the streets and fields to become runaway hits, and then crash and burn on the field of alcohol and drug abuse? There is no point in listing them. You know their names as well as I do, from Elvis to Michael, from Judy to Britney, Marilyn to Morton, and on, and on.
The bottom line, as we in recovery know well, is that if you throw the garbage into the broom closet instead of taking it out and getting rid of it, eventually the kitchen begins to stink. Sooner or later, it reaches the point where we either gather together the courage to open the door and clean out the closet, or we have to leave the building. There are many doors out of the building, but most of then lead — figuratively, if not literally — to the dumpster. Whether we want to or not, we take the closet with us.
Recent experiences with public figures who have attempted to get into recovery have made it clear that when the public eye is on your every move, it’s not the easiest thing in the world. The media have no respect any more. Just two weeks ago, a TV crew burst into a 12-step meeting in Connecticut, with a wet-behind-the-ears reporter determined to make her career by bringing those terrible people out into the light. Paparazzi mob anyone who has ever caught the public eye — and was anyone ever more in the public eye than the Two Kings? Others came and went, rose and fell, but Elvis and Michael were right there, center stage, whenever they ventured out of their carefully-fashioned cocoons.
And therein, my peeps, lies the rub: you can hide the smell in the kitchen from the neighbors, but you can’t hide it from yourself. At least not without help. And who do celebrities ask for help? Dr. Phil? How do they meet the down-to-earth people who can speak to them as human beings instead of looking at them with stars (or dollar signs) in their eyes?
They are far more likely to meet people who will tell them they’re fine (sign right here, boss), help them get help (here y’go, boss, this is your new doctor, he knows how to keep you feeling fiiiiine), protect them,control them, keep the goose laying those platinum and gold eggs.
Until the goose can’t handle it any more.
I’m not defending drug abuse, child abuse, spouse abuse, or general idiocy by celebrities. All I’m asking is, what do we expect? We take ordinary human beings, treat them like gods, and then when they literally cannot get the dose of reality that they need to survive, we make them into tabloid monsters.
I’m sure glad I’m just a recovering drunk. It’s so much easier than being a King.