From the Archives 2009
For All the Boblings June 2009
Every time a fame-hungry celebrity or pseudo celebrity lands in the news for absolutely nothing at all we all grind our teeth in frustration. With so little to show for it, except for the synergy of blind adoration, it’s difficult to care about them alive, dead, good, bad or in the nude. Last time I said this, it was just before Michael Jackson had died and, whilst in a very general sense it’s always a tragedy when someone dies, in this case, I stand by my flippancy. I’m sure the details surrounding his demise will come out in the next few days and weeks but I doubt it will change anything. It will only cap what history will almost certainly judge to be a truly bizarre story. Especially since at one point or another, MJ managed to fall into all the five categories mentioned above. But the untimely end of the “King of Pop” has gotten me thinking about the concept of Legacy. Tell me, what do you think of when you remember Michael Jackson, Elvis, Bob Hope, and James Dean?
Legacy (noun): something transmitted by or received from an ancestor or predecessor or from the past <legacy of the ancient philosophers>. We often think of the legacy of presidents. Those legacies generally take the form of Mideast peace attempts and/or a presidential library. Sometimes we attempt to establish our legacy through genetic propagation. An idea I’ve always found somewhat curious. Sometimes we like to build. The Romans had their roads and aqueducts, the Greek’s their temples, and Americans have their various towers, commercial empires, media hegemony, or technical and scientific prowess. Perhaps we the legacies we create might be: art, music, poetry, religion, philosophy, science. Our legacies can take many forms.
The high point of Michael Jackson life was probably the release of the album Thriller which continues to be one of the best selling albums of all time. It became a catalyst for Michael’s fame and fortune. Thriller “cemented Jackson’s status as one of the predominant pop stars of the late 20th century.” The album allowed Jackson to meet important people and to do important things. It was also released in 1982, four months before I was born. By the 90s the Jackson story had become a bizarre and scandal ridden flop. His behavior became increasingly erratic, his face… increasingly indescribable. The Michael Jackson I knew was broke, grotesque, and planning a comeback tour if only to pay his mounting debts.
How about Elvis? Do you see him as a breakout musician personifying cool in the 50s in the same way that Jackson did in the 80s? Elvis’s contortions became so popular that “some saw the singer as a sexual pervert and psychologists feared that teenaged girls and boys could easily be ’aroused to sexual indulgence and perversion by certain types of motions…’” Elvis nye single handedly ushered in the age of Rock and Roll, or as it would later become known: Country. That’s happy Elvis. The Elvis that others see is a fat addict slowly becoming a caricature of his former self. The final image of the King is an overdose in his bathroom; his toilet a fitting throne.
Certainly not all legacies are dismal. Bob Hope died at home with his family. He was 100 years old. Allegedly as he lay dying his daughter asked how he wanted to be buried. He replied, “surprise me”. The last 25 years of his life he spent meeting important people and receiving awards for the work he did in the previous 25. It was oddly synchronous with Einstein: Both were men of unparalleled genius who never managed to recapture the glory of youth. It is a good life, the kind of life most people want and when he finally died they ran his name in the paper for a few days.
Then there’s James Dean. James was a man who died when he was 24 after making 3 films and a handful of television appearances. He was another icon for the 50s when cigarettes were still cool, and being aloof and a loner wasn’t creepy. And that’s it. Jimmy never died of cancer, didn’t overdose, didn’t join some weird religion or mouth profanities at random people and minorities, or simply succumb to the humiliating onslaught of age. In his way he was the Jesus of Cool, the Socrates of Style, or the Mozart of rebellion, dead before his humanity disillusioned us. The Legacy that James offers us is the choice between ignominy and obscurity with little in between. Of course there are countless other legacies and one doesn’t have to choose between the four examples I gave. Ultimately though, it doesn’t matter.
Perhaps I am my father’s legacy, which if true, makes him my grandfather’s legacy. How many generations can you count? I count 4 before my ancestors become little more than lines on a page, and a few more after that before they disappear entirely. We are all the fading legacy of a forgotten people. I suppose, how ever much one would wish, it would be foolish to imagine any kind of personal importance. Should art and monuments ever be constructed in my name they will merely serve to aggrandize our culture whilst my name is forgotten. (Anyone care who Mona Lisa really was?) Everyone knows of the pyramids. After all, they still exist and are a famous tourist attraction. They were monuments to the pharaohs who ruled Egypt and were built to ensure their own personal legacy. There are a little over 100 that we know of today; how many can you name? Some historian probably knows, but, again, it doesn’t matter. The essence of the leaders of that superpower is gone, and even their names are gone or fading. What is left, we see, is nothing more than a testament to the Egyptian culture.
There was a guy back then, let’s call him Bob. Bob was your average everyday kind of guy. ‘Bob the Egyptian’ if you like. He wasn’t famous enough to get into Egyptian history, let alone slowly and inevitably forgotten by it. He lived, he died, and if he left any children, they’re dead too and no one really cares. Had he never existed Egypt would have gone along its merry way rising and falling none-the-wiser. But he did exist, and Bob, along with all the other Boblings, got to participate in what once was Egypt. I sincerely hope that that was enough for Bob because that is the meaning of Legacy. As we project our legacy into our future we find our children moving on to something we won’t recognize. As we look back on the legacy of our ancestors we find that we have forgotten who they were. Legacy isn’t falling by the historical wayside. It isn’t monuments and history books. It’s simply participation in the moment; in the very Now. If we are incredibly special then someday perhaps we’ll exist to bore school children forced to memorize the names of a few handful of accomplished people before they’re allowed to go outside to play. Who knows? Maybe Jackson was famous enough that one day he’ll be featured in a chapter on 20th century music in a music appreciation class.