“He’s sort of like a fawn in a burning forest”
—Steven Spielberg, on the late Michael Jackson.
It should be no shock at this point to say that Michael Jackson lived a double life. Even early in his life, the future member of the musical royal family was aware of the divide between himself and the living rooms of America.
As young Michael, he was the voice of pure joy for a nation struggling to find happiness amidst the chaos of the Civil Rights and Vietnam era, perhaps a safe black face to broadcast out to a world becoming increasingly panicked by the revolutionary momentum of the counterculture. Behind closed doors, he was the victim of both physical and emotional torture at the hands of his father, Joseph Jackson, a figure so perniciously careerist that he recently used his son’s death as a marketing tool to promote his record label. As Michael grew up, the divide between the man in the mirror and the man on stage continued to widen further and further until the moment when the bubble burst and he became the biggest-selling pop star of all time. At this point, neither the personal nor the public Michael Jackson belonged to the flesh and blood Michael Jackson any more. He was now a part of mass culture, a part of the public consciousness subject to all of our most deluded perceptions and projections. He was a new kind of star, the kind for which buying an album became like being a shareholder. We all owned stock in Jackson, Inc.
For people born when I was (1981), there is no relatable world without Michael Jackson. He was literally there at the start of my memories. And though I never purchased any of his music until I discovered the cosmic splendor of Off the Wall in college, he was a part of the first two pieces of music I ever owned. Seven-inch records of “Weird Al” Yankovich’s “Eat It”, a parody of Jackson’s “Beat It”, and USA for Africa’s “We Are the World”, the all-star fundraiser record written by Jackson and Lionel Ritchie, used to sit in my toy trunk amidst plastic records babies could chew on like “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and flexi-discs plucked from my older brother’s MAD Magazine stash. I never questioned why they were there. They were like air, accepted and thereby trusted—an inevitability.
As Greil Marcus’s essential writings on Jacksonism in Lipstick Traces noted, Thriller came about as if it were an inevitability too. And the Michael Jackson world post-Thriller was likewise pop culture as fact of life. Whether you liked it or not, you had to acknowledge it. When he was in the news, MJ was on the tip of everybody’s tongue. It was dumb luck on our part that much of the music happened to be phenomenal, because it didn’t have to be.
I imagine these past few weeks were a bit like what it felt like to be alive in 1984. Michael Jackson was again ubiquitous. He was on every television set, seeping out of every car radio passing down the street, in the backdrop of every conversation. The world was in love again. We had forgiven Jackson for betraying us, and were now proving our devotion the only way we knew how: by spending exorbitant amounts of cash.
The whole rotten exchange stunk. It was as if a murderer had crashed the funeral of one his victims and turned it into a fiesta. In the end, our anointed king of capitalism was broke, in debt, forced to go on tour (the grimly named This Is It tour, practically a death knell unto itself), plagued by lupus and alopecia, anorexic, addicted to prescription pills, possibly suicidal, and haunted by voice troubles. He was the butt end of every hack comedian’s ire, a broken and fractured shell of a man. Jackson may have been a weirdo creep pervert, but he had gotten a pretty shit bargain for surrendering his identity for the greater good of the church of the dollar. Now, after having sucked every ounce of life out of the man, here was the American public, stumbling down the streets like a drunken vampire ready to fuck the corpse.
Unfortunately for Michael, his biological father was not the only abusive paternal figure that he would encounter in his life. He was host to a lifetime’s worthy of parasitic relationships with substitute fathers who would eventually turn him into the golden goose of their avaricious and exploitative yearnings, and subsequently shit down his platinum throat whenever the abrasion of living life in this ridiculous fashion began to show.
A lonely child who was never quite alone, surrounded as he was by a gaggle of siblings, insatiable fans, and omnivorous music biz vermin, Michael Jackson self-described himself as a lost boy, a la Peter Pan. Like one of the orphaned swashbucklers from J.M. Barrie’s infamous tomes on childhood, Jackson was able to live out all his fantasies and create an adventure narrative that pre-prescribed himself as the victor (as his 1984 “Victory” tour would make apparent). However, this luxury of Disney-esque fantasy-making was not elicited in Jackson’s life through the manifestation of absolute freedom. The rock n’ roll ideal in a pre-Jackson world, total freedom was a countercultural challenge posed to the American dream. To be free, as the hippies envisioned it, was to remove oneself from the unreality of systemic logic, which prescribed one’s social role based on a set of mostly arbitrary codes and dogmas.
Jackson’s fantasies never involved this kind of rebellion, nor were they prone to acknowledge the falseness the American dream. To subvert paradigms as close to the hegemonous architecture of the control superstructure as Jackson often was would involve ruffling a few tail feathers. And Michael wanted far too much for every one to love him, as his father didn’t, to do anything but appease his sponsors and puppeteers. Michael Jackson was able to live out his wildest dreams with the help of cold hard capital, blurring the lines between Michael Jackson the musician, Michael Jackson the product, Michael Jackson the event, and Michael Jackson the spectacle. The money didn’t exactly set him free as Reagan’s American dream had promised, but it did set him loose.
Years later, he would engage the Peter Pan myth further with Neverland ranch, a grotesquely puerile spectacle of capitalist excess and celebrity entitlement that morphed in the public’s eye into more of an anthropomorphic dungeon of shattered innocence than the fountain of youth Jackson had envisioned. By that time, the double life had split and re-replicated itself into so many elusive doppelganger Michael Jacksons that you were never quite sure which one you were seeing at any given time. Jackson’s dream had turned and his latent anxieties of being crushed by the simulacrum were beginning to manifest themselves in new, creepy ways. The media, led by feckless tabloid bully Martin Bashir, started to imagine a new narrative, more pied piper than Peter Pan, the psychotic pop predator luring the children who buy his albums to his lair to seduce and rape them. Never mind that the two lawsuits brought against Jackson were entirely baseless, dreamt up by a series of parents so negligent and opportunist that they made Joseph Jackson look like Phil Huxtable. I mean, Jackson seemed capable of doing those horrendous things, right?
In hindsight, Jackson’s biography more resembled a different myth, that of Frankenstar, the hideous beast of our dysfunctional molding whom we shamed for his monstrosity. His visage by the time of the child molestation allegations was so disfigured that it was barely recognizable, his iconographic face having become a battleground for both the struggle against illness (his vitiligo) and surrender to it (his persistent body dysmorphic disorder). Beyond the superficiality of his experimental face, the new flesh that came from living deep within the videodrome, presciently reflecting the thick layers between the über-celebrity reality and actual, Michael Jackson was Frankenstein’s monster because he was a life created entirely by American public consciousness, vivified by the fawning falseness of Reagan’s sociohistogenic “Morning in America” schema, an eruption of commodity fetishization and careful image manipulation substituting for democracy.
Unlike John Lennon’s clumsy attempts to appear working class, or Mick Jagger’s incessant chauvinist posturing, Michael Jackson had no strong desire to be “authentic” or “real”. Yet he had no interest in morphing into a sci-fi rock god construct like David Bowie or Alice Cooper, either. Jackson wanted the measure of his album sales to be the yardstick for his success. After all, the more people bought his albums, the more they would love him. Then, the fantasy of his conquest could replace the reality of his isolation as long as he believed in the fantasy. He forgot, of course, that the love of a consumer public is fickle, as opposed to, say, the love found within the religious cults of movements.
Still, Thriller dropped like an atom bomb. Its effects are still lingering. It re-arranged the music business model to foster multi-platinum-selling blockbuster releases filled with half of an album’s worth of single-ready tracks. It reformatted radio to accommodate more integrated playlists. It infamously launched both Epic Records and MTV. Its crossovers with Pepsi, the ad council, and, eventually, Disney paved the way for the multimedia experience. In a way, Thriller became the largest album of all time by pronouncing itself as such. It was the beginning of the marketing blitz designed to suspend all other activities of life in anticipation of the arrival of the next, new glossy thing. It practically wrote its own headlines. The only single person, black or white, to ever inspire a relatable mass-marketing craze to the one Michael Jackson did is now living in the White House
Though not directly Jackson’s making, the ripple effect is staggering when you think about it. The success of the music videos from Thriller set a new standard for the burgeoning MTV, a channel of 24-hour advertising. Music video and MTV redefined visual media, particularly Madison Avenue, rearranging how advertisers thought about image management, lifestyle branding, and visual manipulation. These tools were eventually weaned into the “perfect” science of neoliberal ideology until they conquered all television, including the major news networks, subsequently centering all aspects of American life around either the accumulation of commodities or the fulfillment of lifestyle prescriptions. The epitomical spire of this dystopian arch could be seen in George W. Bush’s use of public relations firms to help him launch the war in Iraq.
The products up for sale, whether a war or a record, took on only totemic value. Their value lied only in their appearance within the larger mainframe. “We Are the World” was charity as commodity, the idea of change available for the price of being entertained by a room full of rock stars. Soon, corporate donations were a stand-in for activism, and you could “pitch in” by donating a small portion of your money to some of the world’s richest earners. The illusion of participatory culture was further augmented by Jackson’s complicity in the cola wars, demanding of the young (“a whole new generation” as the bastardization of “Billie Jean” went) that “you’ve got to make a choice” between Coke and Pepsi, a selection process that later became an apt metaphor for the two major political parties in the U.S. as they assimilated into one another.
The media’s eventual backlash against Jackson seemed like a self-defense mechanism, like they could not believe their golden child was capable of acting in a way not befitting of the royalty bestowed upon him, dressing up chimps, spreading rumors about buying the elephant man’s bones, throwing sleepovers with kids, and filming extended montages of vehicular vandalism. When the king of pop married Lisa Marie Presley, daughter of the king of rock, it felt like an arranged marriage, another PR stunt. Any incentive beyond the advancement of himself as a brand legacy was inconceivable. Perhaps even more inexplicable to Michael Jackson himself, we had turned him into his father, scorning his careerism and practically begging him to dangle his baby out the window so that we might wag our fingers at him.
That his tickets-only funeral was to be held open casket with camera crews roving throughout the Staples center is no surprise. Jackson’s death, like his life, is to be cast in the glow of the spectacle and consumed by a public claiming ownership over his dead body. His death was a human sacrifice to appease the gods of capitalism in a downturned economy. It’s as if the executives at Sony got together in a room and said “Jesus, we’re dying out here. We need to do something drastic. Let’s kill Michael Jackson”
His death was filled with tragic irony. He was the biggest selling pop star who left a mountain of financial woes. Known for his singing and dancing skills, he was finally frail and struggled to maintain his patented range. An anti-drug spokesmodel at his peak, he succumbed to legal prescription addictions. The world Michael Jackson trusted, the one we built for him, the one we promised for him, was false. Soon, he will become mere myth, and it will be like he never existed at all—if he ever even did.