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HIStory. Michael Jackson as Tragic Hero

July 9, 2009 • Adam Nemett

When I was a kid, four or five years old, I was crazy about Michael Jackson. This probably puts me in the select company of some four or five billion people worldwide. I memorized his lyrics, practiced his choreographed dances, and performed the “Thriller” dance for company, right down to the eerie Vincent Price voice-over. My mother even sewed me a sequined glove that I wore to my MTV-themed birthday party. This extreme adulation probably puts me in the select company of some four or five billion people worldwide.

Like most of the billions who once idolized Jackson, I grew up and grew disillusioned with the King of Pop. As the media broke story after story, the superstar went from brilliant to eccentric to creepy to potentially criminal and eventually faded into the type of seemingly-sinister reclusiveness usually reserved for fictional characters. Now that he has died, as prematurely and mysteriously as most of us sadly suspected he would, there is the equally inevitable debate on “What is Michael Jackson’s legacy?”

Managing legacies is essentially what we do every day at The History Factory—for major institutions and individuals alike—and one thing that’s clear is that it must be difficult and strange to be constantly in the public eye. The corporations and famous individuals who utilize our celebrity archives services would likely corroborate this. The potentially destructive mixture of adulation with pernicious scrutiny must make it nearly impossible to remain grounded and secure.

As good students of story structure, we at The History Factory are attuned to the rising and falling action of narratives—be they fictional or of a stranger-than-fiction reality. And in stories, regardless of whether the given protagonist is an individual or a Fortune 500 corporation, there are basically two possible outcomes: uplifting and inspiring, or tragic. Some protagonists are ennobled and redeemed by age and experience, and some crash and burn before their time.

In his article in the recent Special Commemorative Edition of Time Magazine, John Cloud wrote: “In the theater of celebrity tragedy, each play has three acts. The first is confusion . . . The second act of a celebrity tragedy is cleaner, simpler than the confusing first act: everyone suddenly begins to heap encomiums on the dead . . . The third and final act takes longer: we set emotion aside and let investigators do their work.”

While Jackson’s recent and confusing “final” chapter effectively labels his story as a tragedy, and has led to a series of posthumous tributes, the story is, of course, not over. And while the current tragedy is hard to deny, there is still room for more chapters, more redemption and/or disgrace in the coming weeks and years (even the emotional eulogizing words of Jackson’s daughter at his memorial spectacle have added new ripples). Jackson’s story may not be over, but his ability to control his legacy certainly is.

But for countless other individuals and organizations that find themselves smack-dab in the middle of their own dramas, the nature and final acts of their stories remain as yet undecided. Even seeming setbacks, mistakes, and challenges can be turned around and used as positive and essential elements within a larger story arc, engendering deep connection, sympathy, and support from a given audience. The question is, will the stars and organizations of today choose to manage and control their own stories as they move forward and leave us with inspiring legacies; or will they become victims of their own fame and someday find themselves among the other tragic heroes?


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