Michael Jackson’s tragic life is only the most famous cautionary tale of what happens when you rob a kid of his childhood, thrust him in front of the public eye, and force him to perform out of fear.
Shoving children into the public eye too early is something I have written about numerous times; for every person who seemingly makes the transition from child star to functioning adult, there is a road strewn with people who learned to equate applause with self-worth and then tore themselves apart once the clapping faded. Even actors like Jason Bateman, whose career remains successful, went through a cocaine and alcohol period in his teens. The straight guy on ‘Arrested Development.’ His teens!
But Michael (Jackson, not Bluth) was the rare case of a celebrity who first hit the spotlight at the age of ten, and became more and more famous over the years, until he was the Most Famous Human In The World. Working like a madman was all he knew since his primary school days, and the fear of not being the best – instilled by his ruthless father Joe, who would strike his children when they flubbed a dance move or a vocal melody – carried over to his obsessive studio methods on his solo albums, and his drive to make the highest-selling album of all time (a goal deemed ludicrous by even his producer Quincy Jones, but which MJ achieved with ‘Thriller’).
The more famous Jackson became, the more he isolated himself, and the stories he fed to the press in order to create a mysterious “wacky genius” persona backfired big time. Self-made myth tangled with self-imposed isolation to the point where sleepovers with kids at the Neverland ranch became his norm – presumably a way of freezing time forever at the age when his relatively normal childhood in Gary, Indiana was stolen. It’s kinda like the soap stories where a heartbroken widower would return over and over to the spot of their first date. But infinitely sadder.
‘Childhood’ is his aching realisation of what was robbed from him, sang over strings so syrupy you will probably need to be tested for diabetes after listening. His honeyed, high-pitched vocal coupled with these Disney strings attempt to recreate something magical that sadly never was. “Have you seen my childhood?”, he opens, and it just get more depressing. He lists off pirates and conquests and kings – a version of childhood adventure absorbed through his favourite ‘Peter Pan’ – but it’s the self-analysis that hits the hardest. “It’s been my fate to compensate, for the childhood I’ve never known”, he admits, and while we all knew this, it’s saddening to see he was aware of the traumas that shaped him. “No one understands me, they view it as such strange eccentricities. ‘Cause I keep kidding around like a child, but pardon me.”
In the end, however, Michael just wanted what we all want: love and understanding. We all saw his childhood, and wouldn’t wish that level of scrutiny and fear on anyone.
“Before you judge me, try hard to love me, the painful youth I’ve had. Have you seen my childhood?”