Saturday, June 27, 2009

Is Michael Jackson's Death a Tragedy?

I don't know if you guys have heard, but Michael Jackson died.

I felt bad when I heard this, but not because of who MJ was. I felt bad because when I hear that anyone dies it reminds me of my own mortality, which is depressing (and largely why I stopped reading daily AOL headlines). Frankly, my first instinct, as I'm sure is the case for many others, is to find out why a 50 year old man suddenly died, so we can assure ourselves it won't happen to us (okay, I'm not doing daily Demerol shots, phew). Also, I've lost four close family members and a beloved family pet over the last five years, so I'm not going to lose too much sleep over Michael Jackson.

But clearly, if the news outlets are to be believed anyway, this is a pretty big deal, and some say, an unspeakable tragedy. But is it really a tragedy, more so than the death of anyone else? One thing I always think about when something like this happens is how much worse it would have been to die at 50 and never to have done anything culturally relevant, which happens probably every day. But objectively, is this a particular tragedy? To answer that, I think we need to talk about what it means to say a life ends tragically.

Was It a Violent End?

One situation in which we say someone died tragically is if their death was the result of violence. A car accident, a shooting, a fire. If not violent, a death that comes with great pain is considered tragic: Cancer, emphysema, ALS. Michael Jackson appears to have essentially passed away in his sleep.

Was Someone Else Responsible?

We also consider it tragic if someone causes the death of another. When someone who should have continued living but does not because someone hit them with a car or crashed their plane, this is considered a tragedy. A suicide is also considered tragic, but usually it is the circumstances that led to the suicide that are thought of as tragic, not necessarily the death itself. This one is not clear. It may be that Jackson received bad information about prescription drug use, and it may even be that drug overdose will not turn out to be the cause of death, but it seems equally likely that he took risks with drugs even after receiving precautionary advice from doctors.

Was His Life Cut Short?

This is the big one. If someone should have lived for a much longer time on average, then we consider his death a tragedy. The average life expectancy of the African American male is about 69 years. That means that Michael was cheated out of 19 years on average. Unfortunate, but it may not be tragic. Of course, MJ was not the average African American male. But we don't know if that works for him or against him. Clearly he is not subject to the life-shortening effects of poverty or gang violence, but on the other hand, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that the lifespans of great musicians are shorter than average. Some of the greatest musicians in history did not even see their 50th birthdays (Elvis Presley, 42, John Lennon, 40, Wolfgang Mozart, 35, Jim Morrison, 28, Sam Cooke, 33, Marvin Gaye, 45, Otis Redding, 26, Jimi Hendrix, 27).

Did He Have More to Contribute?

What about Michael's contribution to society? While he was planning a new concert tour which would no doubt have been sold out, it seems that Michael's positive cultural relevance is largely on the decline. I would be surprised if most of the people who are now playing their old Michael Jackson DVDs and downloads around the clock had chosen of their own accord to play a Michael Jackson song anytime in the last ten years before June 26th. Since HIStory in the late '90s, MJ has been primarily known for his bizarre lifestyle, accusations of child molestation, and questionable treatment of his own children. This doesn't take away from his historic contributions to the music world during his lifetime, of course, it's just a question of how much more he had to give.

As I stated, there is a way in which it is a tragedy when anyone dies. But is it any more of a tragedy than the death of say, Farrah Fawcett, who lost a courageous battle with cancer at the age of 62 and who is credited for a number of movie roles inspiring women to take control of their lives, or of Stephen T. Johns, killed by a white supremacist while defending the Washington D.C. Holocaust museum? Probably not.

Some might say: why even speak of whose death is a 'greater' tragedy? When anyone dies, especially prematurely, it is equally unfortunate. If that is your attitude, good for you. In a world where certain lives are clearly valued above others, it seems that is a rare position to take.

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