I’VE AVOIDED the television coverage of the death of Michael Jackson, so I’m not burned out on the network news’ week of binging on sentimentality. Obviously the guy fell into the abyss a long time ago and, at this point, dying while trying to conjure a career resurrection was probably the best business strategy he could have employed. He’ll sell a hell of a lot more records now—already 800,000 since his death—compared to how quickly the diminishing returns on concerts would kick in.
But I don’t want to talk about his debts or Big Pharma’s trademarked chemistry set in his bloodstream or speculate about how and what may or may not have turned him on in bed. I cannot help but believe he was both extraordinarily talented and psychologically tortured in ways that should at least force us plebeians to first stutter momentarily with silence before imagining ourselves as morally superior to him.
The media circus shouldn’t be simply an occasion to engaged in gauche emotional outbursts or condemn the circus itself. Rather, it should be a time to think in “Meta” terms about Michael and his place in American culture.
What struck me about the death of Michael Jackson was that, amid this year’s Pynchon-like clusterfuck of storylines and subplots happening in the “real world,” is that I felt affected by it. I recognize that that statement is callous and arrogant, but despite the presumption, what’s even more important about it is that my feelings about Jackson pertain to how the human being immanent in the “Michael Jackson” icon-turned-caricature was a victim of cultural cannibalism.
Jackson was a titan of music and commerce who not only created some vital pieces of American music, but also collaborated, enabled, influenced, and inspired many other artists. Whether you believe the apex of current American pop music is better embodied by Beyoncé or LCD Soundsystem, all are to various degrees beneficiaries of the M.J. legacy.
But Jackson was a man who helped refine many of our most egregious cultural defects. He exercised profound influence on how pop musicians could turn their corporate musical success into a cultural brand. He did it through his management of his recording contracts, relationships with other talented artists, fashion, and corporate endorsements.
Jackson pioneered the practice of the pop star as nurturing two entangled brand platforms: the “musical persona” and the “publicly-visible-private-persona.” To formulate it another way, he crafted his public persona in a way that rent his celebrity from his musical talents. He didn’t merely bifurcate his public self into “the artist” and “the celebrity.” More than any other entertainer of our age he is responsible for making us aware that both of those things are enclosed by scare quotes; they are both fictions sold to consumers to enhance and reinforce the profit made on the products.
Of course this type of multi-tiered artifice didn’t originate with Jackson, but within our post-Warhol cult of the famous, Jackson’s presence was as groundbreaking as the Campbell Soup Can itself. Michael Jackson was not only the artist who created Thriller, but he was also the ostentatious personality that had a chimp, an amusement park in his backyard, and a brigade of cosmetic surgeons. And because of his status as “artist” and “person,” he took this branding to unprecedented levels of corporatization. Unlike Madonna, his only entrepreneurial contemporary (who has taken almost two decades to lapse into irrelevance), Michael Jackson’s brand suffered both rapid destruction and then a phoenix-like-rebirth into infamy as a hideous caricature because he was the victim of a cultural shift to which he could not adapt. In the early 90s, Jackson still sold a record like Dangerous by the tens of millions, but his influence waned in the United States as he was undermined by the next-generation-superstar ethos of Kurt Cobain.
Jackson and Cobain share in their art a magnificently crafted sense of alienation and aggression. Cobain wore it proudly with songs like “Sliver,” “I Hate Myself and I Want to Die,” “Heart-Shaped Box,” and “Rape Me.” Jackson, on the other hand, refused to acknowledge that displacement and anger explicitly. Instead, one could hear the his aggression through his sneeringly precise and calculated enunciation (songs like “Bad” or “Smooth Criminal” or “They Don’t Care About Us” or “Scream”). One could see the violent grace of his dancing. But neither his “performer” nor “celebrity” overtly recognized the tensions built into his music. His “performer” mask was worn on top of his “celebrity” mask and both were ornate artifice upon a man engaged in an undeniable, yet publically undeclared, war against his own body and being.
After a Cobain, for the tensions between the music and the celebrity to be unstated and assumed lost its appeal. One could not just undulate beautifully in the abyss of psychological devastation and in the shadow of post-industrial capitalism. Out was an uncritical acceptance of the incongruous spectacle of “Michael Jackson.” In were merciless, brutalist reports of self-loathing and meaninglessness.
Music shifted and, while all the wealth and extravagance remained, more and more artists found ways to cash in and make pop music a place for litany and confession. Whether it was the Ur-Emo of Cobain; the urban realism of Notorious B.I.G, Wu-Tang, or Jay-Z; the didactic shock-rock sermons from Marilyn Manson; or the ironic hellfire of Eminem, Jackson’s unacknowledged angst was quaint and puzzling. Even the (arguably legitimate) heirs to Jackson’s pop music niche, such as Justin Timberlake and Beyoncé and Britney, who further advanced his template of the performer/celebrity dichotomy, infuse their music with autobiography to such an extent that they better conform to the post-Cobain confessional mode than they do to Jackson’s style.
We the public were aware of Jackson’s alienation by the givenness of his talent and the isolation in which his cultural hegemony placed him. And as tastes changed and the luster of his artistic accomplishments faded, we did not forget the obviousness of his tensions. We still had his “celebrity” consume. As a public we filled in the gaps through late-night comedians’ punch lines about plastic surgery and pedophilia. We voyeuristically and habitually gazed at Jackson through the looking glass of cable television. Thus, his unprecedented ability to separate his celebrity from his musical talent in the 80s led to a grotesque, prolonged occasion of cannibalism because we, the zombies of the over-consuming mass culture afflicted with a pathological mania for celebrity skin, were in need of a feeding.
Fittingly, the artistic statement for which he will be remembered is a baroque and derivative short-form zombie flick. Jackson profited immensely from the over-consuming zombie audience. He just couldn’t satisfy and control those desires indefinitely. Reports indicate that Al Sharpton told Jackson’s children at the memorial service, “wasn’t nothing strange about your daddy.” And that’s true: through his art and excess he worked hard to be—and then couldn’t escape the fact that he was—exactly what we wanted to consume.
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