by Lauren Pabst, Contextual Healing
The only reason I can talk about Michael Jackson is because he’s a freak. His face is all cut up. But just remember, when you look at that thing he calls his face, that he did that for you somehow. Somehow he thought you might – maybe it would help, maybe people might like me more if I turn myself into a white, ghoulish-like creature.
– Dave Chappelle, For What It’s Worth (2004)
Like many others, I was surprised and saddened by the death of Michael Jackson.
I just took for granted that Michael Jackson would always be around – an uncomfortable work in progress, a strange and wonderful phenomenon.
I feel sad that now when I think of Michael Jackson, it will be in the past tense. I felt a similar sadness with other music greats, but in this case there’s also an upsetting sense of:
This is how the story ends.
Thanks to the harsh, immediate spotlight of our celebrity worshiping culture, though I never even laid eyes on the actual MJ at so much as a CD signing event, I – like most of us – was intimately aware of the details of his extraordinary, turbulent life. Not just aware of the infectious grooves that have become part of our cultural sense memory and cause the blood to pump along with the bass line of “Billie Jean.” Not just aware of his unprecedented success in album sales and music videos, and his wild talent for singing, songwriting and dancing, but aware of the abusive childhood, the reported self-loathing, the clandestine surgeries, the skin bleaching, the claims of vitiligo, the pet chimp and the hyperbaric chamber, the sad attempts to create a fantasy childhood he never had, the allegations of child molestation, the surgical masks, the collapsed nose, the scarf-draped children and dangled baby of mysterious origins.
I realize that part of me was hoping for a comeback – not like the current one that was projected to make gobs of money performing for rich Europeans – but a grand triumph of self-awareness (a decision to “make that change” as he croons in the song “Man in the Mirror”). I half-hoped in the back of my mind that maybe the years ahead would see a calm, rotund, septuagenarian Michael perched on a stool, wearing a sport jacket, his face – if not transformed into the round cocoa original, at least long-since un-meddled with – singing “We are the World” with Alicia Keys at the 2020 Grammys; releasing a book of interviews conducted by Cornell West in which he examines the troubled cauldron of influences – societal and personal – in which his once-troubled lifestyle was forged. Unlikely, I know. Maybe this would have been possible in a parallel universe. But not here. Not anymore.
And I realize that with this fantasy trajectory, I’m basically wishing that Michael Jackson grew up to be someone other than who he was. It is to wish that he had a less traumatic life, that the little kid with the devastating soulful voice singing and dancing alongside his older brothers wouldn’t have grown into an adult so clearly warped by an entire life under a media microscope.
In a thoughtful article in the New York Daily News on June 26th, 2009 about Jackson’s musical legacy, Jim Farber writes:
“Jackson’s work with his brothers did more than score bullseye’s on the charts. Their relationship gave the mass media a model of a cohesive African-American family operating in joy and harmony at a time when race raged as a dividing point in the country. From that point on, Michael Jackson’s story would be as much about symbolism as talent.”
Symbolism indeed. If in those early years, young Michael – with his youthful charisma, energetic voice and wide, easy smiles – represented a new possibility for the generation coming of age during the Civil Rights movement, then we must also examine where he ended up in terms of symbolism. The problem is that according to some, Michael never came of age. He devoted millions to indulging childlike whims that he had been denied as a famous kid and befriended other current and former child stars. In his 2003 sexual abuse trial, Dr. Stan Katz testified that Jackson did not fit the profile of a pedophile – he had emotionally regressed to being a 10 year-old boy.
In the white-hot height of his career following the 1982 release of the album Thriller, produced with Quincy Jones, the 20-something Michael Jackson seemed to have it all. His epic music videos smashed the color line of MTV and according to Farber, jump-started the pop music frenzy that characterized the 80’s.
If we follow the MJ-as-symbol theory, then when it comes to race relations, the 80’s were the decade of everything being – or seeming, at least pop-culturally – okay. Michael Jackson was the most successful recording artist since Elvis. Equality! On TV, Dr. Huxtable and his family presented a portrait of upper-middle class black contentment. Equality! But as the 80’s wore on, crack swept the streets of black neighborhoods across the U.S. and rates of black and Latino incarceration began skyrocketing. With the closing of factories and deportation of high-paying unskilled jobs, generations were born into what would become decades-long unemployment. And it seemed that that amazingly contradictory happiness of fame took its toll on the emotionally fragile, painfully shy superstar Michael as he became more reclusive and altered his famed appearance more and more.
Was the troubled, surgically altered adult Michael Jackson a sad product of post-Civil Rights era decades of pretending that everything was fine?
Symbolism alert: he made millions to star in Pepsi commercials and was severely burned.
Last night saw the expected wall-to-wall news coverage of the death of Michael Jackson. Even now, TV anchors and “entertainment reporters” are probably readying a days-long audio/video dirge for the benefit of their own ratings. In other words, the pendulum has swung the other way: as with the obscene media treatment of the death of Anna Nicole Smith, it seems that the more mocked and reviled the celebrity was in life, the more embarrassingly obsessed the mainstream media becomes with their untimely passing.
Almost like we had guilty consciences or something.
There are still those who have rejected Michael Jackson completely because of the allegations of child molestation that we brought forward in 1993 and again in 2003. Though Jackson was found not guilty of the most recent charges, many take the fact that he settled out of court with the family from the ’93 suit (in which the plaintiff was the child of a former friend) as proof of guilt. But as in most celebrity trials, it is often the case that myth outstrips fact in the public imagination. In other words: many who pass judgment don’t know for sure what happened in either case or even the details of what happened in the trial. The mere accusation of child molestation is often enough to destroy a reputation.
But when it comes to celebrities, everyone feels entitled to an opinion. That’s the way it goes in our culture: celebrity bashing is the corrosive flip side to the gilded coin of celebrity worship. No matter how much your life sucks, you can vent your frustrations at someone richer, more beautiful and crazier than you.
But even in the world of celebrity, double standards abound. In his 1999 song “Mr. Nigga,” recording artist and social critic Mos Def weighs in:
You can laugh and criticize Michael Jackson if you wanna
Woody Allen, molested and married his step-daughter
Same press kickin dirt on Michael’s name
Show Woody and Soon-Yi at the playoff game, holdin hands
Sit back and just bug, think about that
Would he get that type of dap if his name was Woody Black?
An interesting and valid point. Woody Allen (whose most recent film “Whatever Works” opened just a few weeks ago) and his public image have been basically unscathed by his admitted behavior towards his current wife, who was a minor at the time of their initial “involvement.” And what’s more, it seems that the license to bash a famous person increases exponentially when the person’s appearance does not conform to the ideals or even norms of society.
Which brings up an uncomfortable question. Namely, where does the whole of American culture fall on the responsibility spectrum for the life of Michael Jackson – a life with as many ups and downs as a rollercoaster at the Neverland Ranch? Of course, though we are all products of our environment, personal choice and the autonomy of the individual is a large factor in the equation of who we all become. But thanks to the work of father Joe Jackson, an ambitious session musician from Gary, Indiana, Michael Jackson – from the tender age of 5 – was specifically and mercilessly groomed to entertain the American public. And he did so – in an unprecedented way.
And now we know exactly how this man’s life has played out.
Along these lines, today I think of the scene from the 1999 film Three Kings. The film, written and directed by David O. Russel (I Heart Huckabees) is set shortly after the end of Operation: Desert Storm and places that conflict in a murky and fascinating context of greed and cluelessness.
In this scene, the Army Reserve Sergent played by Mark Walhberg is kidnapped and tortured by an Iraqi intelligence officer (played by Said Taghmaoui). The topic of conversation turns unexpectedly to the King of Pop: