The King of Pop is dead and a product of the media has ceased to be. From his debut with the Jackson 5 in 1969, to his moonwalk at Motown 25 and the later allegations of child molestation, we as a culture have reveled in his actions. Not only have we consumed Michael Jackson’s prodigious musical output, but also his public (and quite possibly criminal) foibles.
Those poisonous lights
Pop culture leaves us with many strange stories of excess and eccentricity, ranging from the obsessive-compulsive Howard Hughes, to a bloated and self-medicated Elvis Presley who supposedly fired a gun at his television. (The reason he did this is still unclear; some say that he just didn’t like seeing Robert Goulet on it.) More recently we witnessed the demise of those like Anna Nicole Smith; who seemed to yearn for media attention regardless of how she might achieve it.
Jackson was not the first to be affected by toxic limelight, nor, will he be the last. Britney Spears, an ostensibly “simple” girl also who came of age in the public eye, also seems to have little grasp of which direction might be up. What many of these people had was a symbiotic relationship with the media. They breathed a kind of poison gas and couldn’t prosper without it. While their lives became indubitably perverted by such intense documentation of each microscopic act, they have also been rewarded abundantly for the public airing of their idiosyncrasies.
Some of us suffer from the “blues” after momentous occasions like weddings or completing a marathon. Feeling special is nice, and sometimes that leaves us unwilling to return to “normal life”. Jackson must have experienced such sensations a thousand-fold. Thrust into the spotlight as a young child, praised by millions and scrutinized by many more, his was a rare and odd case. I question whether we have any capacity to understand exactly how such an amplified version of the human experience must skew one’s compass. While most of us are capable of contextualizing our lives as a result of there being millions of others just like us, Jackson’s reality was uniquely his own. For all of his riches, he may very well have been more alone than any of us will appreciate or understand.
The final act
In recent months, Jackson announced his “This is it” comeback tour, which he referred to as his “final curtain call”. The effort was viewed by many as a last-ditch attempt to resurrect what many saw as a cruel running joke or an outright train-wreck. The artist who once had riveted the world with “Thriller”, the moonwalk, and his spectacular showmanship appeared to now be known more for reclusive behavior, alleged acts of depravity, and his mutated appearance. The artist’s album sales had slumped, with his 2003 recording “Invincible” only selling a fifth of what the regaled “Thriller” had. Post-“Thriller” songs like “Heal the World” and “Earth Song” seemed like a pale shadow of what we had once come to know the singer for. Long gone were those infectious hooks, instead we found only facile and doe-eyed platitudes about rainbows and puppy dogs.
While his recordings could no longer command the attention they once did, Jackson entertained us to the very end. His oddities maintained his public persona even if his work commanded little actual relevance any longer. Quite likely there were some who’s careers were based solely on recording his seemingly inexplicable acts; meanwhile, Jacques Peretti’s recent documentary “Michael Jackson: What Really Happened” made a convincing argument that the artist was quite guilty of the crimes of which he had been accused. The images of hidden chambers adorned with child-suited motifs and decoration made many squirm given what their existence implied.
Those of us who loved his music were left with a strange dichotomy: our appreciation for his music had become stained by allegations which had become very difficult to ignore even in light of his acquittal. Jackson conceivably saw this tour as an opportunity to turn the tides on a monetary basis (it’s estimated that the tour would have earned Jackson £50 million), and perhaps as an effort to change public perception. Sadly, it’s hard to believe that anything less than him parting the seas would have made this possible. His role had become that of a cultural car-wreck, and we increasingly looked to him less for his musical output, and instead for strange stories that might stoke our collective amusement.
A few short months ago, some of Jackson’s possessions were up for auction. While a couple sold for paltry sums, many went unsold. Jackson, even from a voyeuristic standpoint seemed gradually less worthy of attention. Today, however, all has changed. We read thousands of headlines that canonize the singer and his remarkable musical legacy. Artists, politicians and fans have come out of the woodwork to praise the singer and make grand gestures of affection.
While many congregate to celebrate his life and mourn his passing, others are searching for ways to benefit. Within hours of rumors of Jackson’s demise spreading on Twitter, DJs stood outside the gates of his home, speaking to press, trying to glean a little of the publicity. Even Flavor Flav broke from canoodling with Brigitte Nielsen (one might assume) to express his condolences. It’s hard to not see an opportunist at work here grasping for any kind of media attention that might be had.
Today, phrases like “Wacko-Jacko”, which had become a mainstay of tabloid headlines, seem more venomous and improper. In his death comes a strange reverence that few observed in the last years of his life. With death our perceptions are shifted and many are anointed saints. Now a collective delusion takes hold, in which we praise this same person we were only too happy to skewer 24 hours ago.
For as odd and possibly immoral as Jackson’s actions may have been, he in many ways seems like a lamb brought to slaughter. His life became a product of our collective appetite for tragedy and amusement. In the legacy of Michael Jackson we find a man who few would see as anything but terribly ill; his grotesque and disfigured outward appearance seemingly evidence of a deeply damaged individual. While the images we’ll print on t-shirts and commemorative plates will be of a dynamic icon, for nearly thirty years we’ve watched the man transform into a frail, ghost-like shell.
This morning, instead of just mourning the loss of an icon, we might also light a candle for our own collective conscious. Jackson’s life and death (it’s rumored that his cardiac arrest was brought on by an addiction to prescription drugs) are in large-part the sum result of a gossip culture addicted to controversies and disasters. We demand a steady stream of sensational stories that we can chew up and spit out, rarely considering their consequences. We perpetuated Jackson’s demise with each tabloid purchase or joke uttered at his expense.
While you and I watched a few news clips last night and retired to bed, others were presumably burning the midnight oil. It’s not particularly difficult to imagine all those who slept not a wink in the race to deliver albums, t-shirts and newspapers to store shelves overnight. Sadly, the sound this morning is not that of “Billie Jean” or “Rock With You”, but instead the collective chime of a hundred-thousand gilded cash registers.
As dubious as Jackson’s actions may have been, it’s hard to imagine them being enabled better than they were by us, the public. Aside from his brilliant music, he satiated our voracious appetite for amusement and as a result, the life he led is hard to be seen as anything other than perversely distorted. We might ask ourselves what role we played in his sad life and ultimate demise.