Friday, July 10, 2009

The King is Dead, but…

Throughout history there have been individuals with prodigious musical talent – Mozart and Beethoven in the Classical Age, Duke Ellington and Eubie Blake in the Jazz Age, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger in Folk, Leadbelly in Blues, the list goes on and on.

But when did musical talent, even genius, become the object of veneration and idolatry? In my own lifetime I can remember that Sinatra was idolized, but his various character flaws were not overlooked, Elvis was certainly the object of fan mania, but no one overlooked his drug problems in assessing his character.

Now we have the one some would characterize as Elvis' successor – from the King of Rock 'n' Roll to the King of Pop. He died at age 50. From the viewpoint of my advanced age, I can go along with characterizing that as "untimely" or "dying young." The cause of death is, as of this writing, still open, but there are indications that his known addiction to prescription drugs may have been a factor. His character is certainly open to question. Allegations of child molestation were never subjected to legal test, and it seems that payment to the accusers may have kept them from going to trial. He certainly was not a model of good judgment, dangling a baby from a Berlin hotel window and stating publicly that he saw no problem with sharing his bed with young boys.

So why is he being idolized in death, while his character flaws are being minimized? Suddenly he is a hero to African-Americans who resented his changing his appearance with the effect, whatever the intent, of looking more Caucasian. Fans are praising him to the skies as a fallen hero. Frankly, I don't get it.

He was talented and made a career of entertainment innovation. He was definitely entertaining. He was also deeply flawed. His celebrity and his wealth allowed him to buy his way out of trouble (for $25 million in one case), but that does not make his action less heinous. So why, in the days following his death of as yet undetermined causes, were we subjected to adulation unbalanced by any response to his character? And why do I have the feeling that no matter how balanced I try to be in this column, I will be resented for even mentioning his faults? Have we, as a culture, descended to the point where if someone entertains us, we don't care about anything else?

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