In the days that followed Michael Jackson’s June 25, 2009, death, I reported on his sudden passing from incredible places: the Jackson family compound in Encino, the Neverland Ranch, his memorial service inside the Staples Center.
Each of those locations offered new peeks into his life, and at times served as the site of rare convergences of his life, his family and his fans. But at no point did any of those locations ever present a true glimpse into the real life of the “King of Pop.”
Like Jackson himself, Neverland was larger than life, as was the parade of Bentleys and Escalades his brothers drove in and out of the family’s Encino compound while planning his memorial. That service evolved into a stunning tribute concert. It was a fantastic memorial, but it was completely devoid of raw emotion, save for the moment his daughter, Paris, spent tearfully telling thousands of strangers that “Daddy was the best father you could ever imagine.”
For years, Jackson’s fans had wanted to see him in a truly human light. For that one brief moment in the Staples Center during the memorial, they were able to. One year later, with a criminal investigation into his death still pending, with so many questions about Jackson’s life still left unanswered, it’s difficult to make sense of how his legacy has changed, but one thing seems certain: We, the public, still have no idea what it was really like to be Michael Jackson.
I spoke to onetime Jackson confidant Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, the author of “The Michael Jackson Tapes,” about how perception of Jackson has evolved since his death, and he said the change has been a dramatic one.
“In Michael’s lifetime he was extremely controversial and a lot of people dismissed him as weird and questioned his relationship with children, and in a sad way his death was redemptive,” said Boteach. “I think people began to understand the whole tragedy of his life. In America we see poverty as tragic, we see child abuse as tragic, but fame and money is a blessing. But to Michael it never was. Those were not the things that he wanted. What we all seemed to have, that he lacked, was a normal life.”
Boteach's take on Jackson’s perspective might be overly sympathetic. Jackson certainly made no bones about not just wanting, but requiring, commercial success and the fame that came with it. And most men who want a normal life don’t develop close relationships with baby chimps.
To be fair, Boteach does point out that Jackson’s search for normalcy resulted in a great deal of settling.
“Michael searched for love, he ultimately settled for attention. All the things you describe — the large fan base, being at the top of the charts — that’s not about love, that’s about attention,” said Boteach. “Michael felt the pressure to keep on doing, and that’s ultimately what wore him out and made him so lifeless and lethargic. He didn’t have any more that he could give.”
Jackson may not have had any more to give toward the end, but he gave us many incredible cultural moments. The search for the “real” Michael Jackson will always be shrouded in skepticism and scandal, and we may never know who he really was as a person, but fans continue to find personal connections with his music.
Whether your connection to him is a Jackson 5 song you heard on a blind date, a white glove you wore in the ‘80s or watching “This Is It” with a wide-eyed 7-year-old who’s blissfully unaware of the pain in Jackson’s life, those moments are still meaningful a year after his death, and they’ll still be meaningful a decade later.
Jackson might not have been able to make connections with many people outside his circle, but his creativity has been a bridge to connect other people to each other. And for that, his fans will always have something to be thankful for.
Courtney Hazlett delivers the Scoop Monday through Friday on today.msnbc.com. Follow Scoop on Twitter @courtneyatmsnbc.