Wednesday 25 June 2014

Death of a Celebrity: Michael Jackson

This is a retread of this post written immediately after Michael Jackson's death was announced. It reappears here with a few changes.

It's hard to imagine, but it has been five years since Michael Jackson, the self-styled King of Pop, died. While a real tragedy for his family, close friends, and the millions who revered him Jackson's passing was a seminal moment in celebrity culture. It, along with the demise of Jade Goody and the shock deaths of Princess Diana and Peaches Geldof said a great deal about the state of celebrity culture.

For those not old enough to know what Michael Jackson was like before the abuse allegations, his celebrity person was in a league of his own. Growing up in the 1980s, there were only two other two pop megastars that could touch him in the fame stakes: Madonna and Prince. Despite both of them being sexually beguiling figures, it was the comparatively sexless Jackson who commanded the column inches. A household name from the age of six, his star shot into the stratosphere off the back of groundbreaking records that helped
define modern pop music. Thriller remains the best-selling album ever. His celebrity was something else, it was a cult of the personality. 

Jackson's celebrity reached its apogee in the weird vanity film, 1988's Moonwalker. Watching this tale of 20s criminals, stolen children, and - yes - Jackson's transformation into a car, spaceship and a robot now is an exercise in masochism. Even then, its 93 minutes of hubris was considered a little OTT. Jackson, however, could get away with it. The film positioned him alternately as the champion of kids, as the coolest of the cool, and someone - or something - a world apart from us mere mortals. As if to underline that, you could play him in the video game adaptation - what other celebrity was then rendered in pixellated form?

As celebrity built up Jackson, it was undergoing a mutation. The Gods among us were placed on pedestals by the media, but the money increasingly lay in knocking it away. This was qualitatively different from the gossip and muck-raking of the past. The new capriciousness articulated two contradictory but united 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 an effortless existence in the spotlight.

Michael Jackson's celebrity epitomises this shift. At the unassailable heights of his 80s career, tabloid stories circulated about his erratic behaviour: Neverland, the oxygen chamber, the childlike behaviour, surgery, a shrine to Elizabeth Taylor, Bubbles - all stories 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.

Shortly after the release of 1991's
Dangerous, the almost crippling blow came from the first set of child abuse allegations. Jackson never really recovered, partly because of the wall-to-wall coverage, partly because he never refuted them - preferring instead to settle out of court. Yet the circus continued. 1995's HIStory performed creditably, and the media feeding frenzy surrounding Jackson was matched only by the growing hubris of his celebrity, a hubris that saw him mocked by Jarvis Cocker for his Christ-like performance of Earth Song 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 seemingly-caucasian children, and the exposures by Martin Bashir and Louis Theroux showed him up as a grotesque absurdity. Latterly the second round of child abuse allegations finally and fatally compromised Jackson's aura for all but the most devoted die hard fans.

Yet the death of Michael Jackson the man is but a phase in the evolution of his celebrity. Five years ago, comparisons were made with the late and very much lamented Elvis Presley, and Jackson's celebrity has had a half-life not dissimilar to the disembodied state his ex-father in law has led these last 37 years. His celebrity will continue as it has done - it will fascinate, it will dazzle, it will appall.

Friends, hangers on, journalists, biographers, and opportunist bloggers 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 was a personal trauma for his family and young children, and marked an end to a deeply alienated life.


Gary Elsby said...

The Osmonds were the biggest rivals to the Jacksons in the 1970's. The Osmonds generally were the winner and Donny dwarfed any Jackson by a mile.
No one rivalled Michael during the 80's with everyone else rivalling each other.
I saw Michael Jackson in concert twice, once when Princess Diana was there and he refrained from singing 'dirty Diana'.
His concert on that night was unbelievable and words cannot describe. The second concert was similar with a added few extra songs. Incredible.
The sex abuse cases was not too dissimilar from any other case you hear everywhere, but of course the cult of celebrity was to milk it.
Evidence was all that we 'die-hards' asked for and of course we didn't get any.
Not guilty on every single charge, including kidnapping and hostage taking.
Film showing the 'kidnapped hostages' out shopping on Michael's credit cards!...and we wonder why a jury returns a not guilty verdict X 14.
We found Oceans of Jimmy Saville evidence but no eveidence for Michael. Ho hum.
Michael was showbiz to the core who played to the gallery, monkey, face lift (shock!)and spend spend spend (how could you?)
Fools acted foolishly by suggesting he was mental, bog standard mental who should be prosecuted, found guilty (of keeping a monkey) and executed.
The rest of us just bought his records, bought tickets to see him, wondered at his incredible generosity at Neverland for dying children and his open contact with children with AIDS whose friends, relatives and neighbours deserted them('Gone too soon' lyrics and video-a classic).
Michael showed the world how to behave with dying children. Some press called him a 'pervert'.
Michael was, is and remains a heroic figure and 'die-hards' will have it no other way.
An incredible man and incredible never to be rivalled talent.
He died by an illegal act of which the perpetrator was jailed.
Three children were left without a Father.
He was about to undertake a sell out string of concerts.

How about Jimmy Saville and what he left behind and Madonna's abortive attempt to adopt a child?
I love Madonna but her attempt was ill-judged.
Michael got it right.

Anonymous said...

I always felt Jackson must have been saying, Jarvis who?

Cocker came across a the self publicist and mass ego that day!

Anonymous said...

Speaking of celebs and linking this with one of your recent articles, I really want to punch Rebecca Brooks in the face.