The death of iconic 50 year old superstar Michael Jackson has elicited a worldwide emotional reaction, as well as the obvious postmortem comparison to the life and death of an icon from another era - Elvis Presley.
The comparison is understandable on the surface and yet betrays any meaningful parallel upon further investigation. When it comes to Elvis Presley, our memory of him is intimately related to our experience with him during his lifetime - first, as a heterosexual sex symbol and later, as the all-to-predictable relic of fame and fortune in his social isolation and drug addiction. As we begin to remember Michael Jackson, our nostalgia is far more complicated.
Though Michael Jackson began his public career in a predictable enough manner - a child star who successfully transitioned into young adult star - his life soon took a drastic turn. Where Elvis was accepted into the public consciousness and valued, in part, because of his sexuality, the sexuality of Michael Jackson was more complex and even disturbing.
A male performer who wears makeup and speaks in a high, effeminate voice is received as bizarre - take Prince, for example - but this presentation does not necessarily cross into disturbing territory. When Michael Jackson's questionable sexuality appeared to go beyond makeup and effeminacy into the realm of alleged assaults on children, everything changed. Though he was never convicted of any sexual abuse charges against him, guilt by association forever haunted him.
The ultimate effect of his acquittal in the sexual abuse cases was to usher in greater doubt about his guilt - if fans really wanted to like him and admire his genius, the acquittals allowed some room for doubt about what really happened. In other words, we didn't have to feel as conflicted about liking him once he was let off the hook.
I heard a woman today report how sad she felt about his death, but I am convinced that many other mourners feel more torn than that. Yes, it is tragic when anyone dies of unnatural causes and does so prematurely, but don't his death and presence plastered all over the media recall the more disturbing images and events of the various sexual allegations and the trials that covered them? Without these allegations and trials, wouldn't our feelings of grief for him be more pure?
On a psychological level, the only comparison we can make about the lives and deaths of Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley relates to the twisted and depersonalizing impact enormous fame can have on a human being. Yet once we begin to switch our focus from their lives to our reactions to their deaths, we see the final difference. In the end, our conflicted feelings remind us of the difference between pure and contaminated nostalgia.