14-carat coffin

Michael Jackson was buried today in a gaudy, 14-carat gold casket. I cannot imagine a better metaphor for the empty rewards that celebrity brought him.

My television shows the obligatory helicopter shots of a sea of distraught mourners, juxtaposed with thrilling images of Michael Jackson moon-walking and performing. My email includes equally obligatory missives detailing the sexual abuses Jackson apparently perpetrated on pre-pubescent boys, some of them beset with life-threatening illnesses. A Congressman went on TV to call him a “pervert.” My friend remains angry with Jackson for cutting a brutally anti-Semitic record.

Michael Jackson did some repugnant things. Yet it’s hard to be angry with someone who was so seriously and obviously amiss for nearly 30 years. His wealth and celebrity allowed him to escape the immediate consequences of his behavior. It also allowed him to drive right over the cliff with whatever illness and pain disfigured him inside and out.

For all Michael Jackson’s wonderful talent, his life was a tragic freak show—bookended by the creepy exploitation of a talented child and the equally creepy exploitation of a talented but troubled child-man. He was buried today in a gaudy, 14-carat gold coffin. I cannot imagine a better metaphor for the empty rewards celebrity ultimately brought him.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.