Like Stan Persky, I followed the Michael Jackson trial from a slightly diffident distance, and likewise found Jackson’s acquittal more bemusing than outrageous. I was without the strong sense of the civil libertarian issues Stan usefully identified, content to be satisfied, from a practical point of view, that the trial ruined what was left of Jackson’s reputation for all but a group of partisan nutbars, and that it has also bankrupted him financially (envision a herd of slightly-molested teens, accompanied by parents loosening the goat-lassos from around the kids’ necks as they depart Neverland pulling Radio Flyer wagons stacked high with $100 bills.)
But a photograph of Jackson that accompanied the verdict headline raised a peripheral issue that interests me more than the implications of the case or Jackson’s culpability and future. The photo was a close-up of Jackson’s face, with its whiter-than-Whitey skin, plastic surgery-ruined nose, black-ring eye makeup and the mouth of a 70-year-old pensioner with a heart condition.
The issue the photo of Jackson raises is best articulated as a non-rhetorical question: What is it about the pinnacle of American popular culture that has so utterly destroyed the two Americans who can certifiably be said to have reached it?
The two Americans I’m talking about are Jackson and his predecessor as the King of Pop, Elvis Presley. Like Jackson, Elvis was a musician with more musical talent than common intelligence. It was Hollywood that did Elvis in, specifically the Hollywood Studio system, which rebuilt him as a California/Las Vegas version of the All-American Boy and turned him into a bloated, drug-dulled nightclub entertainer who shot up television sets for kicks and lived on a diet of snack food that would kill a normal person in about six weeks.
Like Jackson, Elvis used his fabulous wealth and fame to create a residence—Graceland—that was really a monument to his pubescent fantasies. Like Jackson he was deeply attached to slightly loony parents he adored but wanted desperately to be free from so he could pursue his more-than-a-little-fucked-up fantasy life. Like Jackson, Presley didn’t seem to like sex very much, had a consistent record of underperforming or not performing at all, and at the same time obsessing over it as an expression of his need to control everything around him. Like Jackson, he managed to produce offspring, despite his peculiarities.
Jackson, and this is really saying something, has become weirder than Presley ever got. But what’s almost as weird is that no one really wants to analyze what it is he’s done to himself or the cultural implications of the transformation—most of the physical manifestations of which, unlike with Presley, have been deliberately and excruciatingly self-inflicted. The standard view, never quite explicitly articulated, seems to go something like this: as a Black man, Jackson constitutes a special case, and has been therefore, by dint of his race and extreme wealth, allowed to do whatever he wants without much serious public scrutiny.
That he seems to have been molesting prepubescent boys since Neverland opened and paying them off more or less openly afterward is only part of it. Jackson is a Black man who, during an era when Black Americans were gaining cultural (if not economic) equality and in some respects cultural ascendancy, turned himself into a caricature of predatory, exploitive wealthy White men. He’s pretty much the figure of what Black Americans loathe, and with good reason.
In a way, Michael Jackson gave up the potential company of Spike Lee and Muhammad Ali to hang out—culturally and occasionally in person—with Elizabeth Taylor, herself arguably the most grotesquely neurotic White woman on the planet. Why on earth—and this also ain’t a rhetorical question either—did he do this? And why doesn’t anyone want to know why?
Maybe it really as simple as William Carlos Williams had it: “the pure products of America go crazy”. There’s lots of anecdotal evidence that suggests that the pressures of immense wealth and cultural power poison Americans on a sliding scale, with the most lethal concentrations graduating upward to the pop culture stratosphere, where they’ve landed on people who simply aren’t built to carry the load.
You can see the effects of that weight on a lot of lesser show business celebrities—Tom Cruise, for instance, another sexually conflicted mental lightweight who seems to be undergoing a similar slide into grade-A kookery these days, although his descent is being fuelled at least in part by the aggressions of Scientology and therefore lacks even a shred of pathos. Other extreme examples are the pop divas Maria Carey and Whitney Houston, who have regular and highly public nervous breakdowns, and generally behave in a manner that’s well beyond eccentric.
Then there’s the reality television show, “The Surreal Life”, which is, in my mind, the only must-watch the genre has produced. The premise of the show is to put groups of near-celebrities and celebrity has-beens in a progression of fishbowls and chicken coops and let the fission of their egos produce some of the best low comedy in the history of the medium. It’s funny as hell, but it also leaves you alternately wondering why the cast members don’t commit suicide after the filming is complete or whether it’s the viewers who ought to do themselves in after watching it.
Celebrity culture is the contrary of the democratic meritocracy that was supposed to have been built from the rubble of World War II. At the top it supposes that if you become famous and wealthy enough, merit and civility are irrelevant, to be replaced by the satisfying of whatever urges your hardwiring has saddled you with. At the murky bottom—as expressed by Jerry Springer’s freak show or reality television shows like Fear Factor, it becomes an addiction to public attention, and if cutting off your own head or someone else’s is the only way to get the attention, well, Whoopee!
In some fundamental respects all of these phenomena are elements of the triumph of the marketplace as the model for human polity. Within that triumph, culture, which ideally ought to be a sort of society-wide discussion of how we ought to make our personal and public lives more interesting and pleasant and less violent, is devolving into a buy/sell free-for-all in which profiteers and the investment-holding classes are the culture heroes and winners. The big losers, unfortunately, are civility and human understanding.
It may be hard to see anything worthy of sympathy within the ocean of bathos that Michael Jackson has become, but he’s a loser, too.
1094 w. July 1, 2005