A blog by Barry Edelson

The Strange, Sad Case of Michael Jackson

Some time in the late 1980s, I walked in upon some younger members of the family while they happened to be watching an MTV documentary about the filming of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video. A teenage fan, held in check behind a police barricade, along with scores of others during the night-time shooting of an outdoor sequence, told the camera gushingly, "We love Michael because he's so real."

Of all the adjectives in the sprawling English language, "real" is not among the first to spring to mind when describing any pop star, let alone one as idiosyncratic and remote as Michael Jackson. While never a fan of Jackson's or his music, I could recognize that his talent was indeed real and enormous, and could easily understand why so many people found him an engaging, even absorbing, entertainer. But it is something of a mystery how millions of fans of such a reclusive and peculiar figure could be so loyal and adoring.

Adam Gopnik, in a 1992 article in The New Yorker, compared Jackson's career to that of Nat King Cole, a very different iconic musical star of a very different era. He observed that Cole's career, like that of almost all jazz musicians, started in small clubs, where the barrier between performer and audience is often nonexistent. When he arrived later on much larger stages, and particularly on television, Cole learned to project the intimacy of those smoky venues. As a listener, you often felt as though he were singing directly to you. By stark contrast, Jackson's career began on the big stage, initially flanked by his older brothers, and later, in his solo career, as the quintessence of the superstar. He never knew what it meant to take a request from an audience member sitting a few feet away. From the outset, there were always lights, equipment, special effects and body guards between him and the fans. His musical style was of of course utterly different from Cole's, but it's unclear to what degree that is a consequence of his distance from the audience or a cause of it. There have certainly been other major rock stars who have at times written in less amplified genres. Of course, in his Jackson Five years, Michael sang quite a few romantic, soulful numbers, but he was a little kid when he hit the high notes in tunes like "I'll Be There", and there is always something freakish about child prodigies imitating adult emotions. Indeed, freakishness is part of the attraction. The later songs for which Jackson is most famous, even ones dealing with raw feelings, are emotional not because they elicit empathy in the listener, but because the listener is awed by his brilliance, by the sheer originality and audacity of his choreography. Granted, behind Cole's smooth and genial stage persona there was also a great artistic effort, but Jackson's entire career was managed to within an inch of his life, to the point where the individual could hardly be discerned.

Which returns to the troubling question: why does admiration spill over into adulation? What leads a woman, interviewed today on the radio, to declare that she named her son after three Michaels: the Archangel Michael, Michael Jordan, and Michael Jackson? What accounts for the blurring of distinctions between a musical star, even one of genius, and a deity? I have been a lover of music all my life, and am awed by the abilities of many great artists, but I would frankly be ashamed to admit it if I thought that Mozart were literally a god. Moreover, I would be mortified to shed public tears of grief for an individual with whom I have no personal acquaintance and about whom I know nothing for certain except the experience of his art.

Perhaps the answer is as simple as this: Since we live in an age in which fame is an aspiration on par with the afterlife, the deification of those who artistry moves us deeply fulfills a psychological need which is roughly the equivalent of spiritual enlightenment. It should not be surprising then that we identify profoundly with those who have achieved stardom in the arenas in which most of contemporary society worships, that we should weep openly for the Princess Dianas and Michael Jacksons of the world, and that we should dream of being like them.

It is also not surprising that we are oblivious or indifferent to the suffering frequently inflicted on those who achieve this dream. Among the things we do probably know with some degree of certainty about Jackson is that he was a sad and isolated figure, who used his wealth to re-enact aspects of the childhood he never lived. What demons he must have been chasing through his willful self-disfigurement is anyone's guess. Being part of a musical clan that lived virtualy its entire existence in front of an audience no doubt took its toll on him, especially because he was the youngest and, by far, the most talented of his siblings. But one is hesitant to simplify and psychoanalyze the dysfuncton of the 20th-century show-biz family. As Alan Bennett wrote, "Every family has a secret, and the secret is that it's not like any other family." It has been told that Jackson's father was a brutal man, and the superiority of the younger child has, since the story of Joseph, often been a wellspring of resentment and misery. We don't know enough about the reclusive Michael to know if these speculations have any basis in fact, and the biographies that are sure to be written will be predicated on a family history that has been distorted beyond recognition by the cruel lens of public scrutiny.

What we do know is that the child star is a kind of modern-day ritual sacrifice. It may not be as outwardly barbaric as a literal slaughter upon a stone altar, but it is no less merciless in its effects on the life and soul of the victim. The annals of popular culture are replete with examples of young talents whose lives have been marked by addiction, mental breakdown, and early death. Michael Jackson is only the latest, and almost certainly not the last, to suffer greatly for our pleasure. We can console ourselves with the knowledge that, at least beyond a certain age, no one made Michael Jackson do it. He could have walked away. But if his fans profess to love him, as they do, they are obliged to ask if his personal sacrifice was worth it. Do we have the decency to take responsibility, as fans and patrons, for our part in such a tragedy? Adulation, however sincere and ardently displayed, cannot substitute for a real life.

June 27, 2009

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