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Jackson's Conflicted Legacy Examined

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

For all the love pouring out for Michael Jackson, there are also those who feel conflicted about his legacy. When it comes to complicating public adulation with a questionable private life, Michael Jackson was in the class by himself. In the 1990s, he paid out over $20 million to settle a claim of child molestation. Years later, he was tried and acquitted of other child molestation charges. At best, he enjoyed the company of children, whom he invited for sleepovers.

Teresa Wiltz has been weighing Michael Jackson's undeniable contribution to music against his personal failing. She's a senior culture writer for TheRoot.com. Hi, welcome.

Ms. TERESA WILTZ (Senior Culture Writer, TheRoot.com): Hello.

SIEGEL: How do you weigh this, the contributions of Michael Jackson, the strangeness of his personal life?

Ms. WILTZ: Well, I think it's tricky. You know, I grew up as a fan of Michael Jackson, as many, many, many people did, and became increasingly dismayed by the freak show over the years and covering them as a journalist, you know, his artistry became eclipsed by the increasingly bizarre behavior. I have to say, sometimes I feel pretty wishy washy because we have to look at the fact that he did revolutionize pop music. He revolutionized the music video. And so I think for a lot of the fans that are grieving right now, there's this kind of compartmentalization.

I mean, there are people who just think he's absolutely innocent and they're quite vehement about that. And then there's others who just are completely horrified by the allegations against him.

SIEGEL: One of the questions that Michael Jackson's life and career seem to pose us with is the issue of the role model. And in recent years it's been increasing common to declare everyone who's terrifically successful at anything a role model of some sort. Here is somebody who might have been an artistic role model for people, but not in the way that he led his life or somehow seem to resist becoming an adult in key respects.

Ms. WILTZ: Well, he identified with Peter Pan. He said he was Peter Pan. He can't be a role model. He can be a role model, as you said, artistically, his music. He sold more records than anyone ever. But, you know, some of the greatest stars made by some profoundly, deeply troubled people. And I think especially in this media age, where it's just like 24/7 TMZ-style coverage, we put way too much pressure on our artists to be something that they're not. And clearly this is - Michael Jackson was someone who couldn't handle that pressure.

SIEGEL: Well, he didn't exactly shrink from publicity, though.

Ms. WILTZ: No, he courted it.

SIEGEL: He loved being photographed and being covered everywhere.

Ms. WILTZ: I think he courted the controversy, at the same time he would kind of decry it and, you know, he tried to have it both ways, I think.

SIEGEL: What do you make of Michael Jackson's unique, at least, a role in American race relations, as somebody who, first of all, crossed the color line in terms of his appeal to audiences? And then oddly seemed to cross the color line in his own life. He lightened.

Ms. WILTZ: He did. And of course there's this, you know, huge debate on the Internet right now whether or it was vitiligo, as he attested, or something else. He's an interesting case because there are those who think that he really didn't want to be black and so was trying to erase his blackness and, you know, there's evidence: the hair, the nose, the skin color. But, you know, when you watch his videos, as I did, it was so deeply rooted in his black aesthetic. I think we can look at him and see that this, you know, judge by his actions. And by his actions he was someone who had a very complicated feelings about being black in America.

SIEGLE: How does one describe Michael Jackson to children? What do you say?

Ms. WILTZ: That's an interesting question because I have an eight-year-old niece and a 12-year-old nephew and I've been talking to them about him. You know, my niece looked at, she'd seen the grownup Michael, and then when she saw pictures of the little kids the same age as she is, she was shocked and she was just kind of stunned.

SIEGEL: She was shocked that isn't the person, you mean, she was saying.

Ms. WILTZ: Yeah. Yeah. She was just stunned. So, I mean, I think you say, I told them this is somebody who didn't like himself very much - made great music.

SIEGEL: And as a grown man, would've enjoyed the company of a 12-year-old, I mean, would've - he would've invited your nephew, perhaps over for a sleepover.

Ms. WILTZ: But he wouldn't have been allowed to go.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: That's the correct answer.

Ms. WILTZ: And I think we also have to remember, he was acquitted of these charges. We'll probably never know what really happened. But we can speak with authority that this someone who had a lot of troubles.

SIEGEL: Teresa Wiltz, senior culture writer for The Root, thanks a lot for talking with us.

Mr. WILTZ: Thank you.

SIEGEL: The Root, by the way, is a daily online magazine focused on African-American issues. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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