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Darkness Falls Across the Land

With all the postmortem probing of the late Michael Jackson, my desire to add to the inquiry is — to quote from Jackson’s nearly exact contemporary — something close to nothing. And yet, and yet. A couple of nights ago I was part of a 200-or-so-person crowd gathered around a group of musicians in Washington Square Park. The crowd had coalesced in the wake of Sunday’s Pride March; shouts of “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” echoed about. The band did its best with songs it wasn’t especially prepared to play. (“We never practice,” one of the singers laughed, “and it shows.”) But what a sight, as people of wildly diverse ages and races and sexual identities sang, swayed, and shoulder-popped as one. The weekend marked the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. And Michael Jackson, the unlikeliest of candidates, was bringing us all together.

I feel bad that Jackson died. And I feel bad that I feel bad — because really, hadn’t he exhausted every reasonable reservoir of good will? Reading and watching appraisals of this most variable of stars, I’m put in mind of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. In Wilde’s Gothic yarn, the soul-abandoning anti-hero remains young while his portrait hideously ages. The only way out of this Faustian bargain is death — a death that comes, at last, when Dorian plunges a knife into his portrait’s (and thus his own) heart. Dorian refuses to grow old gracefully; in fact, he refuses to grow old at all.

Jackson’s desire to remain child-like contributed to, and was at odds with, his growing number of psychic deformities. And he wasn’t able to hide those deformities in an attic; they revealed themselves in public, on his ever-changing face. Blame whomever you like: Joe Jackson; the record executives; the press. But as much as Michael Jackson identified with Peter Pan, his truer analogue can be found in the pages of Wilde’s only novel. One suspects that, just as Dorian was horrified by what he saw in his portrait, Jackson was horrified by what he saw in his mirror.

And yet, and yet. All those people! In New York! Dancing! And my own aging face, every time I hear “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'”: it lights up. Just as Wilde can be enlisted to express dismay about Jackson, he can also be enlisted to expand our range of sympathy. After spending two years in prison for “gross indecency,” he emerged in 1897 and wrote “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” The poems ends, famously,

And all men kill the thing they love,
By all let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

By implicating us, Wilde also absolves us. Perhaps it all comes to the same thing. You want to be a child forever? OK.