Michael Jackson and the archetype of the tortured artist

Michael Jackson - 2 viewsMulling over the life and death of Michael Jackson, I realize he’s entered an archetypal pantheon – that of the tortured artistic genius. Van Gogh and Charlie Parker come immediately to mind, along with all the other jazz and pop stars – Bix Beiderbecke, Hank Williams, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, John Lennon. Then there are the nineteenth-century romantic poets and composers, like Byron, Poe and Robert Schumann (the latter shared my bipolar diagnosis.)

Unlike the rest of these artists, Michael Jackson (aka Wacko Jacko, as the NewYork Post used to call him) lived past the height of his powers. I’m not an expert on his oeuvre, but I believe his last significant song was written to commemorate the death of Princess Diana in 1997. In the years since then, he’s been known more for his bizarre behavior than for his music, but I’m glad that since his death, the media has seen fit to focus more on his musical contributions than his personal quirks.

I woke to the news of  Michael’s death in a Sheraton Hotel in Milwaukee. My husband and I had flown in Thursday night for my fiftieth high school reunion, and Friday morning he turned on the TV. They were talking about Michael, playing clips from his videos, and I asked, “Did he die or something?” My husband replied “Yup.” I realized instantly that I would probably always remember that moment – just as I remember where I was when I learned of the deaths of Jack and Bobby Kennedy, John Coltrane and John Lennon.

Was Michael really a tortured artist? In an interview with Barbara Walters last night, Barry Gordy claimed not – at least not while his career was on an upward trajectory. But driven he certainly was. While still with the Jackson Five, he covered the walls of his room with affirmations of his goal: to become the greatest entertainer in the world. And he pursued that goal relentlessly, driving himself despite exhaustion and chronic pain from multiple injuries. Reportedly he suffered from terrible insomnia since the late 1980’s. Pain and exhaustion drove him to drug abuse, which may in turn have damaged his creativity.

Charlie Parker and Miles Davis in the 1940's

Charlie Parker and Miles Davis in the 1940's

Drugs exert a terrible toll. Charlie Parker inadvertently inspired many jazz musicians to turn to heroin, but Bird was famously quoted as saying, “Anyone who thinks he plays better when he’s juiced or on the needle is out of his mind.”

At the end, according to the National Enquirer, Michael was down to 105 pounds, far too low for his height of 5”11”. Rehearsing for his London concerts, he was emaciated, but according to a show insider, “he convinced himself he needed to lose even more weight to keep up with the intense dance routines he made famous 25 years ago.” The extreme exertion could have caused an electrolyte imbalance and cardiac arrest. And then there are those rumors of a possibly lethal injection. Diprivan, a powerful drug normally used only by anesthesiologists in hospital settings, was found where Jackson died. The thought that he may have sought total anesthesia in his quest for a decent night’s sleep is truly heart-wrenching.

There’s much more I could write, and perhaps I will, but in the meantime, I’d like to hear from you, my readers. What are your favorite memories of Michael? And what do you think of the tortured artist archetype?

6 thoughts on “Michael Jackson and the archetype of the tortured artist

  1. Hi Julie,

    I think a lot about artists who have made poor choices, or who seem tortured. Some of the best–Hemingway and Van Gogh in the past, Hendrix and Jackson in more modern days–just couldn’t avoid a downward spiral. I’m not sure why creativity frequently goes along with self-destruction.

    Elizabeth
    Mystery Writing is Murder

    • Hi Elizabeth,
      Tough questions. I believe those artists who are self-destructive are in the minority, though perhaps the percentage is higher than in the general population. But those who self-destruct are more intriguing to write about, and their legends are the stuff of romantic fictionalizing. Those who continue productively into old age don’t seem to generate as much interest. (But this is pure generalization – I don’t have the stats to back it up.)

  2. I always remember him as the cute, talented kid from the Jackson Five.

    As far as the tortured artist goes, aren’t they exceptions rather than the rule? Well-publicized exceptions, but still….

    • I agree that they’re the exceptions. But as I said to Elizabeth, I don’t have the stats to back up my position.

      I do believe, though, that many artists become less driven as they grow older, and some fall into stereotypal repetition of the works that made them famous when they were younger. Perhaps it’s the dwindling of the hormonal surges of youth.

  3. Michael was truly a tortured soul. It is without a doubt the most challenging life situation to have “all the world has to offer” with fame and fortune. I think it is the rare exception when a person can reach that status and not become lost to their true self. Me, I prefer to remember little Michael the way he was before his obsession with his (ugly to himself) looks and started the lifelong mission to transform himself into some androgynous other-worldly image.

    I did a post on MJ several days ago you’d probably appreciate also. This here is a good one. 🙂

    The Old silly

  4. i used and modified several key terms and finally found this website, but it doesn’t address the main issue. in michael’s last years he was constantly degenerated. when he was proud of his baby and childishly held him over the railing he was overwhelmingly criticized. when parents time and time again allowed their children to go to neverland, he was repeatedly persecuted. whether or not the allegations were true, he was a world treasure and deserved our care. it makes me so upset that only in his death, his fans come out to defend him and pledge their love. why didn’t they show him their admiration while he was alive. although it’s morbid, i feel that it was better for him to die young. he didn’t deserve the way people were treating him in his last years. he was obviously troubled and i wish people had loved him then as they do now.

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