We recently passed the sixth-year anniversary of the death of Michael Jackson. As sad an incident as it was, it was also fascinating in psychological and sociological terms. How can an event be simultaneously shocking and entirely foreseeable? Jackson’s behavior had long been strange and erratic; his medical history being extensive and shrouded in mystery. To learn that Jackson had drug problems in the wake of his death could hardly be described as surprising. But, despite all that, it was still a shock to our collective system. Why? Perhaps it’s just a symptom of the general human flawed thinking that the way things are now are the way they will always be, even though we know, intellectually, that this is not true. But with a figure as ubiquitous, as legendary, and who was such a touchstone of modern culture as MJ was, it’s nearly impossible to imagine a world without him. And then, he’s gone.
While the context and implications of his death are different from that of President Kennedy’s, Jackson’s death has become the “where were you when you found out” story for a generation, much as President Kennedy’s assassination was for an older generation. Yes, we knew Michael had problems. Yes, we knew he was far from perfect. Yes, his artistic output was a far cry from what it was at his peak, but he was still Michael Jackson. He had helped form modern music, entertainment, and culture as much as one person could. He must always be around. And yet, when we look back at the photos, one can’t help but feel that we should have seen this coming.
15. May 2008
Here we see Michael roughly 13 months before his death, at Christian Audigier’s birthday party. Audigier was a highly successful French fashion designer who died in 2015. Jackson is smiling in this photo and holding a microphone, implying that he is, just was, or is about to start performing. He seems happy, which is nice. But to be frank, just about every photo of Michael Jackson around this time in his life is at least a little bit creepy. First, we know he would die just over a year later. But more to the point, look at his face. Just how extensive the cosmetic surgery Jackson had done is the matter of much debate. But he looks almost like a mannequin; his face is pulled into sharp corners and jutting out at his nose, cheekbones, and even his cleft chin.
14. May 2008
In this photo, MJ seems a bit more conflicted. He’s smiling but it seems fake; a plastic smile (or maybe that’s just the cosmetic surgery), literally. It’s difficult with photos because they only capture a fraction of a second. It’s entirely possible that the photo is misleading and that Jackson was having a great night. But knowing what we know about Jackson–that he became increasingly reclusive and anxious about public interaction–it’s reasonable to think that perhaps he was overwhelmed at this party. Perhaps he was regretting having attended at this point. I hope Christian Audigier knew how special it was that Jackson chose to attend his party and how much such appearances took out of Jackson. It seems like nothing was easy for him by this point.
13. Sometime In 2008
It’s been difficult to find much information about this photo from 2008. But it’s become famous on the internet as being used as a prime piece of evidence that Jackson had vitiligo. Vitiligo is a long-term skin condition that causes patches of skin to lose their pigment. Here, we can see patches of discolored and possibly irritated skin on Jackson. Vitiligo has no known cause but it has been linked to genetic, autoimmune, and environmental factors and can be exacerbated by exposure to sunlight. It is more visible on people with darker skin tones such as African Americans, which Jackson was. Jackson claimed that he had vitiligo and that he used makeup to even out the patches, causing his complexion to become a lot paler and, essentially, white.
While Jackson was probably diagnosed with vitiligo, his penchant for cosmetic surgery, particularly on his nose, lead many to believe that Jackson’s pale appearance was deliberate, perhaps the result of skin bleaching. It is also possible that skin bleaching helped to cause Jackson’s vitiligo.
12. Shopping In October 2008
Michael Jackson was generally seen as a shy man. His frequent hiding from cameras (coupled with his soft, high voice) definitely gives the impression of a shy man. But is “shy” really the correct word for it? There are many ills and injustices in this world, so you can be forgiven for not feeling sorry for multi-millionaires. But, let’s be honest. The type of intense scrutiny and lack of privacy that many celebrities face is unjust. And perhaps no celebrity ever had to deal with more paparazzi, more rumors, and less privacy than Michael Jackson. Was he actually a shy guy? Or was he just a man vexed and exhausted by a constant media scrutiny that would be enough to drive anybody mad?
11. January 2009
The first thing you’re likely to notice about this photo of Jackson shopping in January of 2009 is the surgical mask that he is wearing. For several months near the end of his life, Jackson was often wearing a mask, and it was reported that he was suffering from some kind of respiratory issue. His autopsy revealed that his lungs were chronically inflamed. Although this was what the medical examiner believed to be Jackson’s most significant health problem, he ruled that it was not a contributor to his death.
When you read news reports at the time, it’s unsettling to see how much reporters slyly mocked Jackson and his condition(s). Most saw it as yet another MJ eccentricity and did not afford him much sympathy. We can understand why they felt this way about Jackson, but now that he’s dead, it can be hard to read.
10. April 2009
For years, virtually the only time Jackson would leave his home and be out in the public enough to be photographed was when he went shopping, which is why there are so many photos of him doing so. On this shopping trip in 2009, Jackson is again wearing his surgical mask. Again, many reporters saw the mask as more of a way to conceal his face more so than a response to any real ailment. But beyond the mask, perhaps the most striking feature of this image are Jackson’s eyes. Why are they so wide? At what is he looking? He looks terrified or maybe crazed. It’s weird. He’s also wearing his scarf almost as a hijab. Generally speaking, in April in Los Angeles, one does not need to wear a scarf and coat (hoodie?).
9. Outside A Beverly Hills Medical Clinic In May 2009
This photo is creepy for two reasons, both of which revolve around the fact that he is leaving a medical clinic. First, we don’t know why he was there. But we know that he died from an overdose and mixing of a variety of drugs given to him by his physician, cardiologist Conrad Murray. Was Jackson at this clinic to get a prescription of one or more of the drugs that ultimately killed him? Perhaps. What’s more is, he’s leaving a clinic, and he’s surrounded–hounded even–by people and media. It’s one thing to be followed regularly by paparazzi; that is bad enough. But outside a clinic? Can you imagine a setting and scenario in which you’d more want privacy? Yet here, Jackson had none.
8. May 2009
The person behind all those feathers at the bottom left of the photo is Jackson’s son, Blanket. Jackson often tried to cover Blanket’s face to preserve his privacy; an understandable–even commendable–idea. But Jackson, being Michael Jackson, often did it in bizarre ways. When it wasn’t a plume of feathers or other theatrical mask of some sort, it was a cloth or indeed a blanket. So intent on trying to preserve Blanket’s privacy was Michael that he covered Blanket’s face when he dangled him over the edge of a balcony in 2002. (Yeah, that was not a good idea.)
The fact that Blanket was with him suggests that it may have been him and not Michael who required the trip to the clinic which, if anything, makes this photo even more off-putting. He’s trying to take his son to see the doctor only to be met with a media storm.
7. May 14, 2009
Here, we see Jackson with his family. To his right are his three children. From left to right: Paris, Blanket, and Michael Joseph (Prince). To his left are two of his nephews. With eight siblings, Michael had a plethora of nieces and nephews. Michael had both Prince and Paris with his second wife, nurse Debbie Rowe. Blanket was conceived via a surrogate after Jackson and Rowe had divorced. For all his flaws, Jackson undoubtedly loved his children. And, while there are definitely spats that are sometimes public ones, given his bizarre behavior, Jackson’s relationship with his siblings was, overall, pretty decent. One can imagine that there was resentment by most of his other siblings who didn’t have successful solo careers coming out of the Jackson 5; but all in all, they seemed to genuinely care for each other. This photo was taken at a family event involving several of the Jacksons.
6. Late May 2009
This photo was taken roughly one month before Jackson died. It was difficult to ascertain the provenance of the photo. He appears to be shopping again. But then, he’s dressed quite well. I mean, well for Michael; meaning, he seems put together for a performance of some kind. Or maybe not. It’s tough to say. Looking at these photos, you’ve probably noticed how thin Jackson is, perhaps even emaciated. Some have speculated that Jackson suffered from anorexia. In the early 1980’s, Jackson said he dieted to lose weight, specifically to achieve a dancer’s body. Yet, severe weight loss would be an ongoing problem for Jackson throughout his life. It’s also possible that Jackson had a suppressed appetite from some of the many pills he was regularly taking.
5. June 3, 2009
Here again, we see Jackson with his children—Prince and Paris. He is also accompanied by his trusty umbrella, which he usually had on him due to his vitiligo. Just to write a sentence including the words “Michael Jackson” and “children” leads to court controversy. Jackson certainly had inappropriate relationships with children. Many believe that Jackson–largely denied of his own childhood by his musical career and overbearing and possibly abusive father, Joe–was somewhat trapped in a childhood emotional state. After all, he named his estate “Neverland Ranch.” Perhaps Jackson played with children as if he were a child, including sleeping the same bed as them. This is inappropriate, though not criminal.
However, it’s also possible that Jackson s*xually abused children. He was never found guilty of a crime in relation to this, but he did settle out of court a lawsuit alleging child s*xual abuse. We don’t know if Jackson ever did s*xually assault a child. But, it is fair to say that most others with the same evidence against them would be not be given such a benefit of the doubt. Having said all that, there is no evidence that Jackson ever abused his own children, who he truly did love. Although, he was by no means a perfect father.
4. This Is It (Resting)
This is a still taken from the This Is It documentary. Michael is seen at a rehearsal (between numbers) in preparation for his “This Is It” comeback tour at the 02 in London. This photo is from either late May or early June. In March of 2009, Jackson announced that he would do 10 shows at the 02, possibly followed by dates in Paris, New York, and Mumbai. After amazing initial ticket sales, the number of shows was increased to 50. Jackson was set to perform them from July 2009-March 2010. They would have been Jackson’s first series of concerts since 1997. Jackson implied that he would retire afterwards.
The motivation behind This Is It was financial. Jackson’s finances were a complete mess by the time of his death. His opulent lifestyle and a series of bad business decisions had left him in desperate need of money.
3. This Is It (Posing)
Here, we see MJ posing on stage with two other dances as part of a rehearsal. He looks imperious, imposing, comfortable. When one watches the documentary, one realizes that Jackson truly did love to perform. It was basically all he ever did in his life. That’s what makes the relative inactivity of the last 12 years of his life so odd…and sad. Michael didn’t stop performing because he never stopped loving it. It was everything around performing that seemed to overwhelm him; the media and traveling included. While his planned residency at the 02 was likely a decision forced upon Jackson as a result of money issues, it actually wasn’t a bad idea. A prolonged residency at one place would have been more manageable for Jackson than a world tour. It’s a pity, though, that it never got to happen.
2. June 24, 2009
In this photo, we see Jackson standing, pensively waiting for rehearsal to begin. It would be his last rehearsal ever. Jackson rehearsed for This Is It at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, which was owned by AEG who were behind the tour. It seems that Jackson may have seen this tour as perhaps his one last chance to reclaim some of his reputation. The tabloids had dubbed him “Wacko Jacko” (which he hated), and he was known more for his bizarre behavior and alleged s*xual conduct more than anything. But, This is It was a chance to take the focus off that and back on to Michael Jackson the performer. The “King of Pop” was not just some empty ‘80s marketing gimmick; he really was worthy of that moniker.
At 50, this could have been MJ’s last shot at showing the world just how good he was. But it was perhaps all the pressure that he and others put on him that led him to the drug use that would kill him.
1. June 24, 2009
This is quite possibly the last photograph of Michael Jackson…ever. And how appropriate is that? He looks almost angelic in the spotlight with his arms outstretched. The very next day, he would die of a cardiac arrest brought on by propofol and benzodiazepine intoxication. Many blamed his doctor, Conrad Murray, for giving him these drugs, and he eventually became the subject of a police investigation. Murray was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in 2011. He served two of his four sentences before being released on good behavior (and because California’s prison system was overcrowded).
And that was it. The King of Pop never got his one last tour to show us if he could still perform at the heights that he once did. A child prodigy in the 1970’s, the biggest star of the 1980’s, an inconsistent and controversial figure in the 1990’s, and a bizarre recluse in the 2000’s, dead in 2009 at 50.
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