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Playwright, poet and activist Amiri Baraka, birth name LeRoi Jones, was born in 1934 in Newark, New Jersey.

Dying to Succeed

POSTED: October 28, 2011, 12:00 am

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Listening to the courtroom testimony in the trial of Dr. Conrad Murray, the physician facing charges in the death of music superstar Michael Jackson, one cannot help but feel sorrowful. It has become apparent that Jackson was addicted to powerful drugs and was so driven to succeed that he placed his own life in jeopardy. It did not help that he had apparent enablers along the way, but his personal choices and downfall serves as a sobering reminder of the perils of superstardom. A jury will decide Dr. Murray’s fate but no matter the outcome of the trial, the Michael Jackson story is a tragic tale.

Few of us will ever know what it is like to be on the receiving end of celebrity worship. Michael Jackson had received the adulation of fans since childhood and also endured dark days when charges of child abuse were leveled against him. His life had more peaks that valleys, but throughout his career he felt the need to take it to the “next level” to please a fan base that always expected another hit, a phenomenal dance move and live performances that left heads shaking. The “King of Pop” felt that he must meet fan expectations and anything less was failure. Was it realistic after the incredible worldwide success of his “Thriller” album to expect follow-up releases to match or exceed the sales of that historic chart buster? For any other artist an album release with 4 million in sales would be considered a smashing success, but not for Michael Jackson. This talented and gifted artist set his standards so high that it was humanely impossible for him to find happiness.

“Should we have expected the same spins, moonwalking and high kicks of a 50 year-old Michael Jackson as we did when he was 20 something?”

In that respect, we, his fans, deserve some blame. We loved his music and were in awe of his performances but failed to take into account the toll our demands placed on him. For all of his talent, he was human and deserved and had earned the right to transition to another, less frenzied phase of his storied career. Yet, we kept expecting and demanding the Michael Jackson of the “Thriller” era and he sadly was more than happy to try to oblige. Should we have expected the same spins, moonwalking and high kicks of a 50 year-old Michael Jackson as we did when he was 20 something? It seems as if his entire life was spent trying to please others and meet unrealistic expectations, even as a child, and once he reached adulthood he was an empty vessel. His noted humanitarianism was most likely his way of connecting to something “real” in a world in which he had become a caricature.

This incredibly gifted man was a troubled soul, in deep physical and emotional pain. His addiction likely started as a way to ease the pain of burns he received from his infamous accident on a commercial shoot, but likely grew as a way to anesthetize from his emotional suffering. How tragic that someone so gifted felt he had no other choice, that anything less than spectacular was failure, and that his adoring fans would think less of him if he did not perform as he did during the prime of his career? It would be as if a 50 year old Michael Jordan would think he could perform the same wizardry he did on the court when he first entered the NBA. Father Time catches us all but Michael Jackson was hopelessly searching for a fountain of youth that does not exist. The irony is that a 50 something Michael Jackson was still infinitely better than most of the new breed of supposed music superstars manufactured in recording studios and video editing rooms.

We hope this trial will serve to remind those who aspire for pop superstardom that it can be a dark and unforgiving journey, and that the penalty is heavy. There are too many reminders as we recently witnessed with the death of another musically gifted artist, Amy Winehouse. For all the trappings of success, there is that dark closet that many artists inhabit and by the time they emerge, it is too late. Michael Jackson deserved better. This trial should be required viewing for every young artist. No artist should die simply for the sake of wanting so desperately to succeed.

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