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June 29, 2009

Two smart things amidst the global Michael Jackson mediagasm
Posted by Patrick at 07:43 AM *

From Robert Rossney, the best single piece I’ve read about Jackson’s life.

Meanwhile, a few hours after Jackson’s death, Amanda Palmer covers “Billie Jean.”

Comments on Two smart things amidst the global Michael Jackson mediagasm:
#1 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2009, 07:59 AM:

Oooh. Great links.

#2 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2009, 08:47 AM:

... and reading over Rossney's piece, I find myself thinking about the range of horror stories (and science fiction) that are about the almost-us, or looks-like-us that turn out to be horribly, strangely, and often dangerously Not Us. Little fuzzy bunnies, with Big Sharp Teeth, even.

#3 ::: Scott H ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2009, 09:24 AM:

I just got done re-reading a biography of Howard Hughes, and I'm struck by the parallels between him and MJ. Both were men with personal eccentricities--germ phobias in particular--who interacted more or less exclusively with employees and, apparently, spent the last decade or so of their lives on opiate derivatives.

Hard to say which of the common traits are cause and which ones are effect, but I think it's sort of interesting.

#4 ::: Steve Taylor ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2009, 09:25 AM:

> I'm not really any sadder about Michael Jackson's death than I already was about his life.

Perfect - that absoloutely nails it.

#5 ::: colin roald ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2009, 09:30 AM:

The best cover of Billie Jean I've ever run across is this one, by Chris Cornell. The bluesy take on it is just perfect.

Amanda's is great, but is just handicapped by her being the wrong gender for the song, like if a male singer tried to cover something like "Sun Comes Up It's Tuesday Morning".

#6 ::: SeanH ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2009, 09:41 AM:

Amanda's is great, but is just handicapped by her being the wrong gender for the song, like if a male singer tried to cover something like "Sun Comes Up It's Tuesday Morning".

I've never been bothered by that sort of thing - Siouxsie and the Banshees' cover of "20th Century Boy", Placebo's cover of "Jackie", all these work fine for me.

#7 ::: Kes ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2009, 09:54 AM:

Excellent piece by Rossney.
MJ's tragedy is that he outlived his undeniable talent. He truly had been dead for years.

#8 ::: Mary Dell ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2009, 09:56 AM:

It is a very good piece, but I'm leery of the oft-repeated assertion that he wasn't a real adult or actually a man the way other men are, and therefore can't be judged the way other humans are judged. The broken-eternal-child image served him well in his lifetime, in particular by giving him access to children. It's actually a very common meme that's useful to legions of child molesters (whether MJ was one or not) and those who defend them. Its close cousin is the "men are biologically programmed to rape" meme.

#9 ::: colin roald ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2009, 09:57 AM:

I do want to be clear -- it doesn't *bother* me, but somehow it intellectualizes it a bit, introduces a layer of indirection that muffles the emotional punch. I dunno. It may be my own lack of enlightenment.

I mean, I'd have no problem at all if the song was *written* about lesbian failures in love. But as it is, there's simply no way for Amanda to be worried about fathering a child she didn't like, so you have to take a step back and interpret it as her playing a character. Which, yes, Cornell is doing too, but his voice fits the character even better than Jackson's ever did.

#10 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2009, 11:23 AM:

How exceedingly bizarre. Turns out Jackson was a year less three days younger than I. I'da swore he was at least five years younger...

#11 ::: Remus Shepherd ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2009, 11:29 AM:

I think the best articles on Michael Jackson's death are the ones 'proving' that he was killed with an orbital mind control laser by the CIA to keep him from warning the world about an engineered flu pandemic. Why should his death make any more sense than his life?

#12 ::: Lylassandra ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2009, 11:53 AM:

@5: You ought to listen to more folk music; the Irish, at least, have such a disregard for the song's gender that my husband has been trying to research whether it's actually traditional to sing from the opposite gender's POV.

#13 ::: Mark Wise ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2009, 11:54 AM:

Some level of tragedy is inevitable when fame becomes more addictive than making art.

#14 ::: LMB MacAlister ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2009, 12:00 PM:

Mary Dell @ #8: Good point. I think it's more that his psyche was so seriously broken that he couldn't be expected to change. Despite the clamorings of what I call the Judgment Community that "x" can't change, for values of x = addicts, alcoholics, shoplifters, and the villain du jour, pedophiles, and the debates of the Treatment Community, it was obvious to most of us that Jackson was high on the list of public people who had gotten so twisted so early, and progressed so far past any point of intervention, that he would never, ever approach "normal."

As Rossney and others have pointed out, MJ, like Elvis Presley and some other entertainers, as well as Howard Hughes (per Scott H) and some others with tremendous wealth, had reached a vicious cycle in his life. He had not only outlived his ability to do those things he did to electrify those who saw him, he had failed to curb his lifestyle so that he didn't exhaust all his resources (not just financial) at the rate he could get away with early in his career, when money, power, fame, sexual partners, creativity, health, and stamina were all at his fingertips. Life, for those people, becomes an ongoing grind of having needs they can no longer fulfill, no more thrilling than the life of the average heroin addict. And, typical of those tragic lives, in retrospect we see, in the rare event when we're able to reconstruct, that the irreversible changes occurred in their paths long before anyone noticed anything was wrong.

#15 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2009, 12:38 PM:

Mary Dell #8: Also, variant developmental paths (a.k.a. "broken" or "bizarre" people) are part of human diversity! E.g., germ phobia, like most phobias, is a fairly straightforward psychological development, derived on neurological, psychological, and social features common to all humans.

Admittedly, I've occasionally commented that folks on the autistic spectrum can approach "Cambellian aliens" (from the neurotypical POV). But that's a simile, not an identity -- indeed, it's only because spectrum folks are in fact human, that we care about being accepted, and get hurt by the reactions of "normal" folks to our differences.

#16 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2009, 12:56 PM:

I've long thought that MJackson might be best thought of as our first widely-known posthuman.

Not in the striving-toward-the-Singularity meaning of the term, but the Bruce Sterling-ish self-remanufactured off the deep end variety.

The Onion's short-short new article for the occasion summed up everything: Michael Jackson Dead at Age 12.

#17 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2009, 01:25 PM:

Amanda Palmer's cover doesn't really work for me- IMO no matter how tragic Jackson's life was and no matter how tragic the occassion of her cover was, Billy Jean isn't really a tragic song, so it doesn't really work in a tragic interpretation. (But I know next to nothing about music and I'm not a Jackson fan anyway.)

#18 ::: edward oleander ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2009, 02:14 PM:

When stripped of all the polite semi-sympathy, and disregarding who and what caused MJ to reach the point he had, it all boils down to this:

He could no longer function in normal society, nor should he have been allowed to do so. Both for other peoples' safety and his own.

The first line of Rossney's article really did hit it dead on...

#19 ::: Chris Quinones ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2009, 02:26 PM:

I've long maintained that Michael Jackson is what you come up with when you give a schizophrenic the opportunity to fulfill his every desire, though he may have been schizoaffective rather than schizophrenic as such.

But he'd have needed someone to intervene on his behalf who was strong-willed enough to resist boarding his roller coaster on his terms, and he was such a megastar that I don't know if anyone like that existed.

#20 ::: B. Durbin ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2009, 03:21 PM:

I've always looked at MJ as a cautionary tale: This is what happens to someone when there's no one in his life who cares enough to tell him "No."

I agree that there's no need to mourn the man; the need is to mourn the loss of who he might have been, had anyone really cared enough.

#21 ::: beth meacham ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2009, 03:28 PM:

Michael Jackson is what you get when a brilliant artistic talent survives childhood sexual abuse. You'll never see a brighter neon sign flashing out the signs of it: the anorexia, the self-mutilation, the bizarre sexual affect, the exhibitionism, and, unfortunately, the sexualization of other children.

His life, his fame, made it impossible for him to address the neurological and emotional damage. Though his efforts come through loud and clear in his music. Blame him, but don't forget to blame the people who did it to him, too.

#22 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2009, 03:39 PM:

Back in March Sports Illustrated had an eight-page article titled "How (and Why) Athletes Go Broke."

Mostly, it's because of the people they trust.

As Rossney says, hearing "No" a few times might have helped Jackson a lot.

#23 ::: Mary Dell ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2009, 03:55 PM:

linkmeister @#22: As Rossney says, hearing "No" a few times might have helped Jackson a lot.

Listening might have helped. He probably heard it more than a few times, but when you have the power to fire everyone in your life, it's easy to stay on the path of least resistance.

#24 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2009, 04:21 PM:

My old shrink once quipped: "Rich people can fulfill their adolescent fantasies. But superrich people can fulfill their infantile fantasies."

#25 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2009, 04:32 PM:

David Harmon #15: ? Campbellian Aliens ?

Reference to Joseph, John, or some other Campbell?

Is this like the kind of alien in Mork and Mindy?

I am a little confused.

#26 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2009, 04:35 PM:

Erik Nelson @ 25... Bruce Campbell aliens?

#27 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2009, 04:46 PM:

Erik @#25: That would be John Campbell, the editor. The story is that at some point, he got fed up with aliens who were "humans in funny suits", and told his authors "show me something that thinks as well as a man, but not like a man". (Of course, there's an obvious "feminist" retort, but the dude was writing in the 1940s....)

#28 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2009, 05:26 PM:

David Harmon @ 27... No funny suits for Campbellian aliens? Now, where did I put that photo of the Squire of Gothos?

#29 ::: Stef Maruch ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2009, 05:52 PM:

I thought Rossney's post started out well enough, but by the time he got to saying MJ was 'no longer really...human in any meaningful sense' and saying 'it feels strange to call him "a man"' I had serious problems. Human beings who are seriously damaged are still human beings. Men who are seriously damaged are still men. It's disrespectful to the damaged people and to the rest of us to deny this. It's also misguided, because it creates a false sense of otherness and a false sense of security, a sense that this sort of thing could not happen to real people. Well, it could and did.

#30 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2009, 06:48 PM:

Stef Maruch (29): I read 'it feels strange to call him "a man"' as meaning he wasn't really adult, not he wasn't human.

#31 ::: Forza ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2009, 07:01 PM:

Delurking, because all of this coverage has been nagging at me consistently because of one thing, and I've reached my tipping point now. I've been lurking on Making Light for a while and you all seem like the sort of commentariat who would have a thoughtful response:

Am I the only one who thinks Michael Jackson isn't all that weird? Or, more precisely, that he became exactly what you would expect given the circumstances of his life?

It's not just that he was a childhood star who became extremely famous and wealthy, though that's part of it. Add to the mix that he was raised a Jehovah's Witness, was almost certainly non-heterosexual in some way, had lupus and vitiligo, and also apparently was an extremely anxious, shy, introverted man, and you have all the ingredients for a cataclysm:

- Childhood star: a lot has been said. Basically, he never had his own childhood, but he also never learned to interact with anybody who didn't want something from him, who didn't already have their own image of what he was. And he had the immense pressure of being his family's primary breadwinner from the age of 10. So: never learned how to normally interact with people, never did the "learning about oneself" that is the outcome of such interactions, and dealt with intense, crushing stress all his life. For a naturally shy, anxious person, that must have been hell.

- As a teenager / young man, he must have been becoming aware that he was, sexually, not something that society approved of. I think there are many enormous differences between being gay and being a pedophile (I'm gay myself), but I imagine that the psychological effects in his case would be similar: either way -- as a devout Jehovah's Witness living in the 70s/80s -- he probably would have been horrified, deeply shamed and full of self-loathing. And because of his immense fame he would have had nobody to talk to about it or (if he was gay) experiment about, etc. Enter all of the pathologies of the closet, hatred of one's body, etc.

- Because of his vast money he could at this point withdraw from many of these problems and create his own fantasy world. It's not surprising it revolved around childhood, since not only was that something he missed out on, but -- dealing with what he would have seen as the horror of his sexuality -- it must have seemed especially pure and ideal. He obviously wanted nothing more than to go back to that.

- But he couldn't. Then he got vitiligo, which I would guess would have had the following psychological consequences: (a) making him hate his body even more; (b) making his already tenuous and ambiguous relationship with his race even more fraught. My guess is that he bleached himself once the vitiligo got "too bad" (read: too ugly for him). This, of course, rather than making him appear more normal, just set him apart even more as a freak. Same thing with the plastic surgeries, which were starting then too.

- Then the accusations of child molestation. If he was guilty, talk about the self-loathing, and the crumbling of this edifice he had constructed separating him from society and people. If he wasn't guilty, the psychological effects would probably have been worse. For all this time, he at least could have used his extremely positive reception about the world as a source of emotional sustenance. Having been tried and found guilty in a court of public opinion of a crime that is universally one of the most reviled ever had to have been shattering. Especially if he wasn't guilty, but even if he was. (Although, of course, if he was it was no more than he deserved).

- This is getting long, so I'll just note that after that is a steady downward spiral in which his tragic attempts to make things better -- plastic surgery, unsuccessful documentaries -- only made it worse and worse for him.

It's horribly tragic. And speaking someone who is myself introverted, gay, and anxiety-prone, all I can think is: there but for the grace of God go I. Thank goodness I was not also super-talented, black, devoutly religions, and born in 1958.

#32 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2009, 09:31 PM:

Serge #28: <snicker>, but the SoG wasn't even a proper alien in the SFnal sense -- he was just a child with godlike powers. Looking back, I suspect he was meant to be a shot against religion, and especially against the Old Testament depiction -- whimsical, manipulative, and egotistical.

#33 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2009, 09:39 PM:

Forza #31: A good analysis. I'd also note that at least some pedophiles clearly represent people whose sexuality wasn't allowed to develop properly, so they never got the chance for their orientation to "track" their peers as they grew up. The religious and controlling-father issues, especially in combination, would surely feed into that, and the other isolating factors would just aggravate the situation.

#34 ::: Abby N ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2009, 10:14 PM:

David Harmon @ 33: Along those lines, I recall having a startlingly blunt conversation with several male friends sometime around my sophomore year of college, in which more than one confessed to finding themselves attracted to middle-schoolers well past the age when that was perceived as being pretty inappropriate, and the general consensus was that it was an artifact of having been a middle-schooler when the whole sexual-attraction thing started, and it kinda stuck. Further discussion revealed that sex-with-peers was the thing that really dislodged this. A reset, of sorts, perhaps.

#35 ::: Forza ::: (view all by) ::: June 29, 2009, 11:12 PM:

David #33, Abby #34: Good points. I think it's extremely likely that many of these factors interacted with each other in some sort of horrible synergy. (I also can't believe I just used the word "synergy" non-ironically). I don't really have any knowledge about what makes a pedophile, but wouldn't be surprised if the factors you point out play a role in at least some cases.

It definitely says something about our culture (as well as the man himself) that MJ became the person he did. Which is part of why, I think, there is so much interest in him. He's kind of a twisted reflection of some of the worst -- and best -- of who we are.

#36 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2009, 10:50 AM:

Forza #35: It's also worth noting that the current lines for "maturity", at 18-21, are largely due to the need for extensive education in our society. When all that was needed was the ability to work on a farm and/or successfully give birth, people were considered "grown" when they could do that. (Especially when "successful birth" wasn't such a sure thing for 18-year-olds, either!)

Over the last few decades, high school, and then college, have become almost mandatory for being a "productive member of society". (Of course, the underclasses still tend to be shut out from both proper education, and full rights in our society. :-( )

There are other factors involved in the American-based "pedophilia plague/panic", too. Besides the recurrent Puritan streak in our culture, I'd say the age-segregation in our schools is part of the problem -- it splits up the parts of the human lifecycle, especially tending to isolate most kids from most adults, and vice versa.

#37 ::: Jack Siolo ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2009, 02:26 PM:

Abby N, 34,
it was an artifact of having been a middle-schooler when the whole sexual-attraction thing started, and it kinda stuck. Further discussion revealed that sex-with-peers was the thing that really dislodged this. A reset, of sorts, perhaps.

I'm kind of hoping that the easy access to free pornography will help solve this kind of thing. Do you think that would help? (How long ago was that conversation?)

#38 ::: Mez ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2009, 03:44 PM:

Tangentially, Amanda Palmer! How'd I miss her before? Not having won the $100 Million Lotto prize draw tonight (buying a ticket might have helped my chances), instead of booking a trans-Pacific flight to stalk follow her appearances — Thinks: with $100,000,000, I could book her to tour here instead — I'll just alternate "Squeee!" with <Swoon> for a while (and mutter darkly from floor level about her 'n' the gorgeously tousled, also terrifically talented, Neil G, who I've missed seeing twice in Sydney now). Thank you Patrick!, and assorted online audio & video sites.

Do others find it's easier to hear words on cover versions than the original? Between Chris Cornell (excellent) & Ms Palmer I just understood about 30-50% more of that song.

#39 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2009, 04:05 PM:

Is there something wrong with me that I'm just not getting what's so great about the Amanda Palmer video?

Completing the cover song trifecta (at least for me) of Johnny Cash with "Hurt" and k.d. lang with "Hallelujah" is Mariah Carey and Trey Lorenz with "I'll Be There" (the MTV Unplugged performance).

#40 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2009, 04:52 PM:

Jack Siolo #37: easy access to free pornography... Do you think that would help?

NO! Pornography provides visual stimulation, but not the social experience that would contribute to the viewer's own social development. Not to mention it screws up the expectations of a developing adolescent....

#41 ::: Dave Robinson ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2009, 08:00 PM:

He had been an incredible talent in his youth, but I have to agree that he wasn't socialized as an adult human being.

Speaking of Campbellian aliens, he almost reminds me of Valentine Michael Smith. Human by race, other by upbringing. I don't intend to excuse anything he may or may not have done by saying he "didn't know it was wrong," or that he was so twisted he didn't care. He was on the outside looking in and he knew it. It wasn't the big things he didn't understand - it was the little things he had never been socialized to see as inappropriate. He grew sideways because he never had the chance to grow up.

I agree: it was his life that was the real tragedy, more than his death.

#42 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: June 30, 2009, 09:09 PM:

Dave Robinson #41: he wasn't socialized as an adult human being.

You know, I think that's the briefest reasonably-accurate description of his problems that I've seen.

#43 ::: Niall McAuley ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2009, 04:22 AM:

I always thought Jackson's "Neverland Ranch" should have been called "Uncanny Valley".

#44 ::: Mez ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2009, 05:00 PM:

Earl (#39) it wasn't so much that particular video, as starting there and finding her other work at "assorted online audio & video sites". Eventually I realised I'd seen some Dresden Dolls work, but didn't recognise her from it at first.

Something about it being 5:44am here after a day or so without more than a quick upright doze probably influenced the style … gunna try for several consecutive zzz-hours, preferably overnight, soon. Didn't manage today (approaching 7am, sunrise, and trying for an hour or so).

#45 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2009, 11:32 PM:

Mez @38: Do others find it's easier to hear words on cover versions than the original? Between Chris Cornell (excellent) & Ms Palmer I just understood about 30-50% more of that song.

I would agree. And yet oddly enough, it is the original that keeps playing in my head (triggered, no doubt, by these covers).

#46 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2009, 12:01 AM:

And it appears that the children were never really adopted legally. Which makes Billy Jean a lot more prophetic.

And could make a tragedy in their future. I'm terrified for them. They deserve better than the freak show they've lived with so far.

#47 ::: LMB MacAlister ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2009, 12:06 AM:

And, IMO, deserve better than the freak show that Michael himself was raised in.

#48 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2009, 01:03 AM:

Mez #44: Earl (#39) it wasn't so much that particular video, as starting there and finding her other work at "assorted online audio & video sites".

After watching that video, I just didn't want to find any of her other work. Sorry. There are a bunch of interesting remixes of Billie Jean in the wild, though. I wish Talvin Singh would do one.

#49 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2009, 01:45 AM:

#47, AMEN.

I agree with a lot of comments here that his upbringing kept him from developing normal human relations. This children deserve a lot more than that.

#50 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2009, 06:09 AM:

A Newsweek editorial by Raina Kelley, Michael Jackson, R.I.P. For the living, a little snark will get us through.

#51 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2009, 08:04 AM:

From Kelley's article: I predict we're about 24 hours from an Olsen twins and/or zombie connection.

I'm not registered at Newsweek, but I'm sure we can oblige... The question is, can anyone think of something that doesn't involve gratuitously insulting the Olsen girls?

#52 ::: Micah ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2009, 09:16 AM:

Mez @38: Do others find it's easier to hear words on cover versions than the original?

Yes, but I think it's just hearing two-or-more different versions, regardless of who did which. I always have trouble understanding several words from each version, but different words. I think I subconsciously fill in the blanks when I hear a new version, sorta merging the two together.

#53 ::: mary ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2009, 10:45 AM:

The circumstances of MJ's upbringing raise a nagging question in the back of my mind. If you were a crane operator from Gary Indiana with a wife and 9 kids, and it turned out that your 7th kid was something of a prodigy and could, if exploited, earn so much money that you'd be able to provide for all of your children and never have to worry about money again, what would you do? Would you let him say: I don't want to sing, I want to play soccer? It's common among parents of talented children to believe that if they push their children to develop their talent, they (the children) will be happy later on and will someday be thankful.

#54 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2009, 12:12 PM:

Mary #53: I'd say that strategy usually fails with prodigies. We do hear about the occasional exception, but in fact, most "prodigies" revert closer to the mean as they grow up, if they don't crash-and-burn entirely. And that kind of pressure on even (especially!) a smart child, is no way to get a well-adjusted adult out of them....

#55 ::: mary ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2009, 04:26 PM:

David #54: I agree, but it's hard for parents to be rational about their own kids.

From what I've observed, real prodigies push their parents, not the other way around. My son plays the violin (don't worry--I'm not going to claim he's a prodigy.) He never wanted to do it for a living, but he was good enough to be part of an "elite" music scene until he graduated from high school. During his school years I knew kids who decided at the age of 6 that they wanted to be violinists. I knew kids who asked to be home-schooled so they could practice for hours a day. I knew a kid who fought with his mother when she tried to pull the violin out of his hands. He snuck it out to the garage to practice when she told him to do his homework. (He once performed on the radio show "From the Top".) It was as though these kids were born wanting to play the violin. One went to Juilliard, one to the New England Conservatory, one to the Manhattan School of Music, and one went to Yale and from there to the St. Petersburg Conservatory.

omg--Making Light now has spell-checking!! Hooray!

#56 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2009, 05:56 PM:

re 53-55: The thing is that there's talent and there's self-motivation. My eldest son has exceptional musical talents: for instance, when he sang in the Maryland State Boychoir it took him forever to learn to sightread because he memorizes music almost instantly. But he was never aggressive about exploiting those talents. Some kids take a long time to develop the maturity/drive to push themselves through what it takes to exploit their talents fully, and it seems to me that, within limits, a bit of parental pushing is reasonable, even called for. It's going to vary by the kid. Obviously the true prodigies are either going to be very strongly self-motivating, or are going to respond very positively to whatever pressure is put on them. TO me the more important question is how much one is willing to get into the freak show that is the world of child performers.

I actually know a child star (whom I shall call P.); he was living down the street from us when he had a starring kid role in a Broadway show, and he's still in the film/TV business in his mid 20s, though he's also a minister (with his father) at a non-demon church in Hollywood. Of course there came the time when he had to pull out of the public school system and move away. They were a very together family, but his father was extremely protective of him. His brother was actually the more driven type; P. was a typical firstborn "well of course I am destined to excel" type.

#57 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2009, 06:03 PM:

C Wingate @56:
he's also a minister (with his father) at a non-demon church

One certainly hopes so.

I mean, I've watched Angel, but I'd always assumed that that was fiction.

#58 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2009, 06:14 PM:

David #54:

It seems like a lot of child prodigies are in tournament-type fields, where only a small fraction of people can ever make a living at it, and most people who try to get into the field, even the ones who are really good at it, fail. This is at least true of music and sports and acting.

ISTM that realizing your field is a tournament rather than a normal career is immensely important. A career is something that you succeed in by basically being good at it and doing a solid job. A tournament is something where only a tiny fraction of the people trying can succeed, so that you can be very good at it and still never make it.

#59 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2009, 08:29 PM:

albatross @ 58: I think you may be conflating "making a living" with "fame." I can't speak to athletics and acting, but a fair amount of people make a living as music teachers, wedding/cruise-ship band members, on-call studio/gig-sub musicians, etc. It's hardly the most secure career, but neither is it an all-or-nothing gamble if you've got the chops.

In hindsight, I would like to have been pushed more to do music as a child, but I can't see how my parents could have been expected to know that, given that I was equally obsessed with science at the time, and had more apparent aptitude for it.

#60 ::: John Houghton ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2009, 09:13 PM:

...And a musical prodigy I knew in Jr/Sr High (his first orchestral work was performed when he was 16), has gone on to chair the Composition Dept. at Julliard. That's a bit more than just "making a living", but doesn't really count as "fame" as People Magazine would define it.
The problem comes when the amount of pushing is too much for the child, and how do you judge that, other than when it is more about the parent's dream than the child's dream.

#61 ::: mary ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2009, 09:16 PM:

C. Wingate @#56 said: it seems to me that, within limits, a bit of parental pushing is reasonable, even called for.

Thanks for saying this. I also think some kids can benefit from a bit of parental pushing. My father and my brother were violinists, so it wasn't so weird for me to start my son on the violin when he was three. That may sound crazy to some people, but at that age he was only spending about 15 minutes a day learning to hold the instrument and play "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star." Today, at the age of 24, he enjoys picking up his violin and riffing on the Mendelssohn violin concerto or some Bach sonatas. He's a law school student (ugh! the first lawyer in the family, ever--I'm a mathematician) and this summer he's working at a law firm in DC. He and two other associates have formed a violin-cello-piano trio, and he's been practicing Hayden. I'm really glad that I gave him this hobby, even if I had to push a bit.

#62 ::: elise ::: (view all by) ::: July 03, 2009, 02:07 AM:

Beth @ 21:

Amen. And thank you for saying that.

#63 ::: Micah ::: (view all by) ::: July 03, 2009, 11:57 AM:

@53 & most thereafter:

From what I've seen, the measure should be less how much a child is pushed in a particular field than just how hard the are pushed overall. It is natural to, for some portion of the time while raising a child, to push the child to learn and excel and etcetera, often despite the child simply wanting to play. If the child has a clear aptitude, there's no reason this time shouldn't be spent largely on this aptitude rather than in a more generalized direction. The issue is when the pushing of a child to excel begins to really take up more significant periods of time.

Obviously, how much time is enough is very hard to say, but there's definitely risk involved in not pushing someone at all.

#64 ::: Ursula L ::: (view all by) ::: July 03, 2009, 12:32 PM:

I remember reading, some time back, that the biggest shift in Michael Jackson's appearence (with the ultra-tiny nose, the whitened skin, etc.) came at the same time as when he was badly burned while shooting a Pepsi commercial in 1984.

I haven't seen anyone try to document this, putting pictures in order by date, before and after the burn. But it would explain a lot. I don't know what the limits of plastic surgery were in 1984, in terms of being able to reconstruct a badly burned face.

#65 ::: Randolph ::: (view all by) ::: July 03, 2009, 06:09 PM:

Over here, Patti Smith has something to say about him. & a memorial recording. (Did she write it for the occasion? I can't tell--too much distortion, can't make out the lyrics. No permalinks, oh well.)

#66 ::: Randolph ::: (view all by) ::: July 03, 2009, 06:14 PM:

Oh, listen to the HQ version, if you have the bandwidth. In that one I can make out words; still not sure if it's for Jackson, or a broader memorial lyric.

#67 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: July 04, 2009, 07:14 PM:

The WashPost Sports section today has an article on how the Williams sisters weren't pushed and how they've lasted longer than most tennis players.

#68 ::: LMB MacAlister mocks spam at 182 ::: (view all by) ::: July 04, 2009, 11:50 PM:

David Harmon @ #51: In breaking news, some mysteriously-radioactive fireworks have caused a magnetronic anomaly which has, in turn, caused the reanimation of Michael Jackson's remains. His first official act as a zombie was to eat the brains of Mary-Kate Olsen. Ashley was spared, as her brains were not sufficiently marinated to please him. After his grisly feast, The Undead King announced the upcoming release of a new genre, Reborn Pop.

#69 ::: LMB MacAlister ::: (view all by) ::: July 04, 2009, 11:54 PM:

LMB MacAlister sure wishes his computer would quit inserting that "mocks spam" thing after his name as the default.

#70 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: July 05, 2009, 12:38 PM:

LMB's computer probably is wishing LMB would click "remember personal information" or whatever it says when it's been changed to the correct stuff.

#71 ::: Springtime for Spacers ::: (view all by) ::: July 09, 2009, 08:47 PM:

I was thinking about the Williams sisters too. I've heard that their father actually forbade them to play more than two hours of tennis a day while they were growing up so they always left practice wanting to play more. This does seem to have been a most successful strategy.

Back to Michael Jackson I feel it wasn't just that he was at that rarified height of wealth and fame that there was no one who could, or would tell him "No" but that as a child and rising star the discipline he was exposed to was abusive.

There's a pattern I've seen (in myself and others) that makes it hard to establish effective self discipline when one has been motivated in childhood by fear of punishment and has in consequence spent more time learning strategies for getting away with things than developing an adult sense of morality. Indeed self harm, in it's many manifestations, may be another result of this kind of upbringing where people seek to punish themselves for their shortcomings rather than tackling their own behaviour.

Obviously many if not most people can find a way out of this morass but fame and fortune don't seem to be much help.

A final thought, I've been cringing at the coverage over here in the UK of the performance of British child star Shaheen (12) at Jackson's funeral. Apparently he's going to headline the MJ tribute at the O2 arena and he's been photographed with Lionel Richie etc etc. So it begins all oevr again for another kid.

#72 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2009, 02:11 PM:

Via the inestimable Neddie Jingo: Michael Jackson set to be plastinated. Oy gevalt!

#73 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2009, 02:19 PM:

#72: Total nonsense.

For one thing, Bubbles isn't dead.

#74 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2009, 02:33 PM:

Stefan #73: So the Daily Mail was making sh*t up? Oh, the surprise.

On further investigation, he was indeed asking about the idea a few months ago, but the "horse's mouth" says, nope. I take some comfort in seeing that I wasn't the only one eager to believe this one -- inter alia, BoingBoing hopped on this one too.

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