For the past two months, news within the music world has been dominated by two initials: MJ. The world watched as Michael Jackson was rushed to a hospital in LA and was reported to be "not breathing." It recoiled in shock when it was reported that the King of Pop was dead. It cried during his memorial service. And now, it is picking its collective jaw up off the floor as Jackson's death is being labeled a homicide.
It's hard to not see the tragedy in Jackson's story. The star was addicted to so many drugs he probably lost count, and was (like countless other mega-stars) surrounded by folks who refused to say no to him. So when Dr. Conrad Murray administered the lethal dose at 10:30 am on June 25th, it's plausible (however twisted) that the doctor was simply doing his job.
Now, the Los Angeles Police Department is showing the world the most concerned face they can possibly muster. Putting away the person responsible for Jackson's death--be that Murray or anyone else--is their number one priority. To the LAPD, Michael Jackson is now their most high-profile victim.
But he weren't King of Pop, if he didn't have the fame, the money, the connections to get his mitts on the bevy of prescriptions he relied on to keep his habit in check, he wouldn't be a victim. He'd be a junkie--and most likely a criminal.
Compare the way Jackson's death has been treated to that of the recent passing of DJ AM. There are, of course, many differences between the two cases--not the least of which is that Jackson was exponentially more famous than AM. Then there's the fact that nobody else gave him the fatal mixture of crack and prescription drugs.
How does any of this, though, make DJ AM less of a victim? Anyone who has struggled with hardcore addiction knows that shaking it isn't exactly on par with giving up Oreos for Lent (hell, I've smoked a pack a day for five years and no matter how much my lungs crackle or how light my wallet gets I seem to be right back where I started within a week of quitting). Addiction, as we have been so often reminded since Jackson's death, is a real and quite serious condition that can't be overcome by willpower alone.
A quick glance through the history of popular music will also provide an endless list of talented artists who have succumbed to drug abuse or addiction: Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Joplin, Hendrix, Morrison, Vicious, Cobain, et al. Most of these artists didn't have a doctor there to pump them full of their final dose. Yet it would be cruel (not to mention incorrect) to insinuate any of them weren't victims too.
The question of victimhood and addiction might be a sheerly moral one when it comes to famous artists, but to the thousands of addicts who aren't lucky enough to make the papers, it's not nearly as quaint. The LAPD's handling of Jackson's case might look odd to anyone who has been at the wrong end of the department's drug sweeps--not to mention to the thousands in prison for little more than possession of a controlled substance.
Go into any working class neighborhood, any housing project in the country, and you'll see a lot more worth escaping than Jackson had to deal with for a long time. Jackson's addiction stemmed from the deeply held insecurities and pain he carried with him that were no doubt exacerbated by being turned into a one-trick pony by the music industry. In these neglected communities, though, kids are put to pasture before they even have a chance. Is it any wonder that lighting up seems like an easy way out?
In most other industrialized nations, addiction is rightfully looked at as a disease worthy of treatment, and in fact, centers exist for just this purpose. In the United States, however, it's seen as a crime. Unless, that is, if you're rich--in which case the Betty Ford Clinic's doors are wide open.
Michael Jackson's death is being played as a freak tragedy. It isn't. As the investigation into the King of Pop's death continues, it might be worth reflecting on the innumerable talented kids who also wound up in jail or dead without the world ever getting to know them. We also might want to think about the sick double standard that put them there.
Alexander Billet, a music journalist and activist living in Chicago, is a columnist for SleptOn.com and The Society of Cinema and Arts. He also runs the blog Rebel Frequencies (http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com).
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.