As much as I would have liked to remain on vacation, it’s impossible to escape current events in this day and age. Switch off the television, and news pursues one onto the radio. Turn off the radio, and there’s the internet. Unplug the computer, and there are the news stands. And then, even if one isolates oneself in a country cottage in, say, the middle of Wales, the phone rings and someone says, “Did you hear…?”
Did I hear about Michael Jackson’s death? How could I not?
It would be gross to say that his death is anything other than a tragedy. Fifty is quite a young age for anyone to pass away in an era of modern medical care, and Jackson certainly had access to the best. Furthermore, it’s a sad tale because he has been disfiguring himself over a number of years: there can be no doubt that he subjected himself to extensive plastic surgery which changed a dynamic young African American man into a distorted, ghostly shadow of his former self. I must confess that I am as guilty as any of having had a laugh at his expense due to his progressive degeneration: I recall back in 1990, I was seated in a high school English class. The classroom was too small for all the chairs; they were arranged in a compressed semi-circle. It was a grey January day, and the lights were dim. The teacher, named Mr. Jesse, was attempting to elucidate the tricky topic of how one appears is not necessarily what one is.
He said, “For example, who is the real Michael Jackson?”
I replied, “Janet Jackson.”
The ensuing laughter in the classroom, even from Mr. Jesse, was indicative of how far gone Michael Jackson seemed to be at that time. He lingered on for nineteen increasingly distorted years. Now Michael Jackson is now a name that will join others like Janis Joplin or Elvis Presley, renowned simultaneously for musical talent and an aptitude for self-destruction.
However, the present media blitz is beyond all proportion. We are presently on Day Three of the Death of Michael and the bandwagon appears to be only marginally slowing down. I switched on the news this morning and saw an item about how both record companies and souvenir vendors are capitalising on Jackson’s death. Turn to the Times, and there are reports about what medicinal cocktails he was consuming prior to his demise; the nanny he hired to look after his children stated that she had to regularly pump his stomach. Speculation as to his exact cause of death is still at fever pitch: the family has ordered a second autopsy. There are items about his financial affairs, what the fate of Jackson’s children will be, and how his musical legacy will manifest itself for future generations, as if he was the heir to Beethoven or Mozart. If “Thriller” is still played in concert three hundred years from now, then he’ll be worthy of the comparison.
Regardless, the atmosphere is so frenzied that a satire on the Huffington Post suggesting that the Weather Channel was going to run a retrospective on the climactic conditions during various high points in Jackson’s career is almost believable. Meanwhile, Iran is still in the throes of political turmoil, President Obama is trying to shepherd through a remarkable shift in policy on climate change, and North Korea is still as belligerent as ever. Yet, turn on the television, and the media is continuing to stuff its face with ever greater doses of Jacksonian hype.
If we take the treatment of Michael Jackson’s death as a symptom, and then, as Slovene philosopher Slavoj Zizek would suggest, treat the symptom as a message from the subconscious, we are left with some disquieting thoughts: none of the possible reasons why the media is indulging itself so profusely are particularly comforting.
It could be that this is a signifier of pure sloth; it’s tricky for news organisations to provide detailed, comprehensive analysis of complex situations like those in Iran. In comparison, the “King of Pop” dying is relatively easy to broadcast. Reporters need only fly to Los Angeles, rather than analyse the few precious drops of information leaking out of Teheran. Hysterical fans leaving flowers at Neverland or weeping beside his Hollywood star heighten the emotional resonance of the story. Even the staid and sensible Guardian newspaper has indulged by drawing out comparisons between Jackson and Orpheus, the musician of Greek myth. Very little fact actually is reported, all that is broadcast is grief and angst. News becomes a matter of opinion rather than truth.
More troubling than sloth, this could be a symptom of how celebrity culture has become a form of abuse. A quick perusal of the Daily Mail website will show a number of stories about famous people: some are gaining weight, some are looking too gaunt, others are arguing with their significant other, all are subjected to microscopic analysis, in which every nuance is read for a story which guesses, suggests, infers. Not the grandeur of the march of liberty in Iran for such journals, rather, we need to know that the young woman who makes commercials for the Iceland supermarket is eating profusely and gaining weight while she is on holiday. Scrutinised by such an intense gaze, even the strongest individual would crack; it is fair to suggest that Michael Jackson’s abusive childhood may have left him without the social and personal skills to brush off such attention. Could it be that he remade himself in his perception of our image of him, whereby he tried to preserve himself at his peak of fame and glory, and managed to destroy himself in the process? Celebrities are in many instances vulnerable in the first place, requiring validation from a wider audience rather than relying upon internal fortitude: in which case, the culture has an endless series of victims through which to chew. Michael Jackson is not the first, and he is certainly not the last: his funeral will likely symbolise the completion of this particular meal, a glorious banquet of sorrow, but his very public destruction only temporarily satisfies this latent appetite for sacrifices, a barbarism akin to victims being thrown to the lions at the Roman Colosseum. In short, we appear to need to build up people, only to have them destroyed; there is a latent enjoyment of sadism in our culture which remains unaddressed.
The most dangerous response, perhaps, is to accept this situation with a weary sigh and say that it is somehow normal. We validate the illness by saying that it is acceptable. We need to remember that the 24 hour news cycle didn’t always exist, nor did the modern variant of celebrity. It was only after the invention of cinema and mass production that this culture arose, rather simply, with focusing on the lives of Douglas Fairbanks and his wife, actress Mary Pickford. This early form of celebrity was often used as a gimmick to sell products such as perfumes and cosmetics. Technology has only made matters more intense, turning what was a marketing tool into a self-perpetuating industry. The best memorial to Mr. Jackson and his fellow celebrites, is perhaps to deprive the industry of its lifeblood, namely our attention and our money. In such circumstances, celebrities will require other means to achieve validation, and the media machine may actually have to concentrate on reportage rather than gossip. Such a cultural shift may sound far fetched, but most of the great achievements of the progressive agenda, from the elimination of slavery, to the emancipation of women, to the idea of human rights, were even more so at one point. If put in this context, “Michael Jackson Mania” seems like a relatively minor social malady to overcome.