Friday, 26 June 2009

Marxism and Michael Jackson's Death

Michael Jackson, the self-styled King of Pop is dead.

But why should a socialist bother caring? Aren't there better things to write about? Why not leave the coming orgy of retrospectives and comment to the hypocritical media?

It would be a mistake to ignore the passing of Michael Jackson for the same reason why the deaths of Jade Goody and Diana Windsor were analysed and commented on by Marxists: his life and death says a great deal about contemporary celebrity. Which, in case you hadn't noticed, is a major hegemonic prop of advanced capitalist societies.

From a celebrity point of view, Michael Jackson's person was more or less in a league of his own. When I was growing up in the 1980s, the only other two pop megastars that could touch him in the fame stakes were Madonna and Prince. But Jackson was always a more alluring figure as far as the media were concerned. A household name from the age of six, his star shot into the stratosphere off the back of groundbreaking records that help
define modern pop music - that and Thriller remains the best-selling album ever. His celebrity was something else, it was a cult of the personality.

But celebrity as a social phenomenon started taking a darker turn around the moment Jackson reached the height of his powers. The Gods among us were placed on pedestals by the media, but this self-same media realised it was in their commercial interests to knock it away. This was different from the gossip and muck-raking columns of the past. The new capriciousness articulated two seemingly contradictory but simultaneous moments of celebrity: of destroying its deifying aura, of using the media lens to cut celebrities down to size by revealing their all too human foibles; but paradoxically making celebrity more obtainable and more seductive, as a path to an easy life that trades the pressures of the mundane for a seemingly effortless existence in the spotlight.

Michael Jackson's celebrity epitomises this shift. At the unassailable heights of his 80s career, tabloid stories began circulating about his erratic behaviour: Neverland, the oxygen chamber, the childlike behaviour, surgery, Bubbles - all rumours parodied by Jackson himself in his 1987 single
Leave Me Alone. But as long as he churned out the megahits Jackson was able to incorporate the eccentricities into his aura, which served to mark him a star apart from the rest.

Though his career was past its peak by the time he released 1991's
Dangerous, the almost crippling blow came from the first set of child abuse allegations. Jackson never really recovered from this - partly because of the depth of the coverage, partly because they were never comprehensively refuted in court. Though HIStory performed creditably, the media feeding frenzy around his life was matched only by the growing hubris of Jackson's celebrity, a hubris that saw him humiliated during his Christ-like performance of Earth Song by Jarvis Cocker at the 1996 Brit Awards. His two year marriage to Lisa Marie Presley (widely seen as a cynical move to boost his "straight" credentials) was followed by a short-lived relationship to Deborah Rowe, the bizarre appearance of three children, the exposures by Martin Bashir and Louis Theroux and the second round of child abuse allegations finally and fatally compromised Jackson's aura for all but the most devoted die hard fans.

The passing of the corporeal Michael Jackson is a phase in the evolution of his celebrity. Already comparisons are being made with the late and very much lamented Elvis Presley, and it would be very surprising if he doesn't "ascend" to the disembodied state his ex-father in law has led these last 30 years. His celebrity will continue as it has done - it will fascinate, it will dazzle, it will feed the myth of individual (celebrity) redemption.

Friends, hangers on, journalists, and biographers will profitably mine Michael Jackson for many years to come. But peel away the artifice and grotesqueries there lies a real tragedy behind the fame. His death is a personal trauma for his family and young children, but marks an end to a deeply alienated life.

26 comments:

Charlie Marks said...

We must remember that Jackson became businessman, investing in the Beatles back-catalog; Earth Song was perhaps the ultimate statement of philanthro-capitalism.

Phil BC said...

You are quite right, Charlie. Jackson was a complex and multi-faceted figure, a complexity that was reflected in the appeal of his celebrity. With more media coverage to come - not least what will no doubt be a most lavish funeral - something tells me this won't be the only time I'll be writing about Michael Jackson.

Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...

He's not made a decent record for over 20 years, seriously, more important things are going down in groove down than the sad passing of a once great pop star.

paddy garcia said...

Let us not mourn the passing of a nonce, he only got away with it because of his fame.

Raven said...

Great piece, which I enjoyed - especially the points on contemporary celebrity. Interesting question is whether we can separate the 'art' from the 'artist' - I can't do that with Gary Glitter (such as his 'art' goes...), but I seem to be able to with Jackson, though that might have been different if the case against MJ was clearly proved. My own quick thoughts on MJ's death here.

CWIer USA said...

The greatest pop dancer in the history of the world. The Soul Train appearance where he unveiled the moonwalk is etched into my memory as a childhood TV moment second only to Larry Bird’s steal in the 1986 NBA playoffs.

A tragedy of American celebrity culture to shocking proportions. The lack of touch with reality, the magnification of childhood insecurities, the self-obsession and attempt to define himself as a “hero” are all symptoms of a sick celebrity culture. This gives talented people an aura of “otherworldliness,” never challenging them to grow up or deal with people on an even playing field.

Michael was an extreme example due to the severity of his childhood problems and the racial oppression that made him ashamed of his modest background. This combined with the ridiculous level of his celebrity.

A question for the more academically inclined: is there a book or article on how Ernest Becker and Otto Rank's theories of the "Denial of Death" relate to modern celebrity culture?

Paddy: Michael Jackson probably did some awful things to children, but this is a complex situation worth analyzing. Just as the Lindsey strikes were more complex than just BJ4BW...

Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...

A few points regarding CW USA homage:

James Brown was far better at dancing and far move innovative, MJ took much of his work and added but the core of the ideas came from JB and indeed JB came up with the moonwalk first back in the 50s and like most dance moves, has its roots in tap.

Perspective is required.

Tobireg said...

Excellent post, Phil. I suppose that one aspect of the death of Jackson, and one of some sociological interest, that we can now expect to see will be a flood of Jackson death 'jokes' of a racist, sexist and homophobic nature doing the rounds by text and eMail.

Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...

Agree with Tobireg, there seems to be people who pride themselves on making nasty jokes up.

So it goes.

James said...

DHG - Bob Fosse seemingly invented the moonwalk in the mid-'70s. See here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QUlEBhGgEe0

Still, Michael was a marvelous performer and a firm contender for best dancer.

gray said...

I was playing internet chess when the news broke. Within 5 minutes the jokes had started on the chat channel.

As a chess player, I grew up trying to improve my play by studying the games of Robert James "Bobby" Fischer. The man was utterly bonkers by the time of his death; and in his later years, he was notorious for his antisemitism. He famously called a radio station on 9/11, where he was ecstatic at the news and went on to call Jews criminal and that they should be rounded up. Needless to say, it is possible to take pleasure from the chess he played and detest the person.

Phil - with regard to perspective, and still on a chess theme, Jose Raul Capablanca was one of 1920s most popular personalities. He was so good that he seemed unbeatable in his prime. Furthermore, he had all the privilages of a Cuban diplomat and good Latino looks to boot. Apparantly he was as popular with the ladies as Rudolf Valentino. In some ways, things don't change. Any thoughts?

Tobireg said...

Asking around last night it appears that people were recieving Jackson jokes by text yesterday morning before they even knew he had died.Most of the jokes seem to be about his alleged paedophilia

Has anyone studied the topical joke phenomena ?.

Phil BC said...

I don't think Paddy's language is particularly helpful. Remember, we're socialists, not the BNP. It's also worth remembering the case against Michael Jackson were very much unproven - it seems for some the mere accusation of paedophilia is enough. The discussion on this over at Socialist Unity has been very good.

Re: topical jokes - I don't know. But it's well known we use humour to cope with new situations. We're all plugged into popular culture and the death of one of its most recognisable icons has instantly changed it, whether we gave a fig about Jackson when he as alive or not.

skidmarx said...

gray - if youwant to think about dodgy great chessplayers, try Alekhine:
http://www.geocities.com/SiliconValley/Lab/7378/nazi.htm

You should probably have learned from Bill Hartston that the only correct response to the greatest is "Aah,Fisher".
I saw MJ on TV with the Jackson Five over 30 years ago, and disliked him then, and realised only a major scandal would prevent him dominating music my whole life.

CWIer USA said...

The moonwalk appeared in a much more Michael-esque way well before JB's fame. The late 1930s to early 40s are the first recorded sightings. JB's moonwalk was more of a continuous sliding side-step.

JB's dancing was far less innovative than Michael's, although JB was a much better singer. For one, JB's talents were intended mainly for one dancer only whereas Michael could lead a troupe or stand alone. The dancing contributions go well beyond the moonwalk. I would much rather listen to a Brown album than a Jackson one, but Michael was the better dancer. A debate I never thought I'd have on a Marxist blog.

As for the paedophilia, I think he probably did it, and he should've gone into custody for it. It appears to be a classic case of a sexually abused child growing up to become the victimizer; doesn't always happen, but the celebrity narcissism wouldn't have helpe the situation. However, that doesn't make the aspects of the celebrity industry and its most important products irrelevant to Marxists.

Again: anyone familiar with academia know about a recent work relating Rank and Becker's theories of "death terror" to modern celebrity? I think it would be interesting...

Off to sell the paper.

Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...

Hello James, not Fosse I'm afraid, as I said, a proto moon walk is part of any tap classes you'll do and dates fromt he 40s, James Brown doing a version in the late 50s and early 60s is all over YouTube.

The Jackson Four said...

Jackson is the opium of the masses?

He was a very good dancer who sang other people's songs and made record companies a lot of money?

never got it myself.

don't over analyse this sort of thing - it's rather pseudo-intellectual and trite. And DOESN'T make you appear clever.

Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...

CWLER USA:

I think it really is a matter of opinion regarding which of the two is the best dancer and singer. I think JB set a lot of the rules for MJ, whereas JB was not realyl much of a singer, more of a tool of the rhythm; MJ has a good range in comparison to JB but as I said, all a matter fo opinion and KB invented much of modern music with funk and of course, what became hip-hop.

Phil BC said...

All these debates about Michael Jackson are missing the point. What was better, Moonwalker the film or Moonwalker the game?

patsyh said...

Propping up hegemony of capitalist whatsit. Am I in a timewarp? I used to talk a bit like this in the 80's,until I realized abstract argument can prove whatever you want it to, eg, like in religion.
Agree with Jackson 4, pseudo-intellectual
"friends...will mine profitably.." ! You obviously have a great sense of irony

Phil BC said...

Patsyh and Jackson, I don't give a shit about appearing "clever". But I do care about how things work and it happens a certain set of ideas with a particular kind of vocabulary remain the most powerful way of analysing culture. If you don't like my offerings there are plenty of bloggers who revel in their ignorance - feel free to check them out.

patsyh said...

Oops! Great sense of humour, too.

Phil BC said...

Humour is a bourgeois distraction from the class struggle :P

patsyh said...

You are joking?

Phil BC said...

Of course, lol. We try and avoid too much super seriousness here!

Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...

Before the tits came, in answer to your question, they were both terrible but the terrible game edges it for nostalgia alone.