Mythologizing Michael Jackson

by Karen Wink

26 August 2010


The Rise

There stood Michael Jackson in a billowing white shirt: body erect, arms perpendicular, hands fisted, mouth a roar, eyes ablaze, hair winded—all working together in a Christ-like pose. His apotheosis. In the montage of images swirling posthumously, it is this perfected pose that spoke loudest to Jackson’s reach to the zenith. He had arrived fully mythologized by his fans, the music industry, even himself. Of fame, he embodied its turmoil and privileges. In fact, “he sums up every aspect of it, having the ultimate fame, the ultimate power, the ultimate influence,” explained Patrick Wanis (Doug Gross, “Michael Jackson and the ‘Extreme’ Price of Fame”, 29 June 2009). His endearing poses—real and statuesque—were emblematic of his objective to become an immense star in show business. In his meticulous quest to achieve artistic and commercial goals, he aimed at the uppermost level where the possible and the impossible co-exist. He aimed toward a place where myths live.

At the 1993 Super Bowl XXVII halftime show, he stood atop the music stratosphere where he exhibited seemingly utter bliss, if only for an extended moment. Upon closer examination, it was difficult to discern if he were proclaiming profound pain or imminent joy. It was as if “pain and pleasure did not enclose him, he enclosed them—and with profound repose” (Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Princeton University Press, 1968). When fans, family, entertainers, and music industry members alike described Jackson posthumously, the superlatives flowed magnanimously. The more far-reaching the descriptions, it seemed, the better: phenomenal, eccentric, thrilling, exceptional, miraculous, unmatched, megalomaniac, and, the most apotheosized, messianic.  Offsetting the positive superlatives, the public asserted the negative: tortured soul, lonely, childlike, emotionally arrested, bizarre, and, most purgatorial, predator. Herein, his public had succeeded in mythologizing him fully, intensely—both positively and negatively at the level commonly reserved for the elevated. He became a figure in a myth that he (or we) did not expect to become real.  In fact, we love our myths, those stories a culture believes as truth; tales that express the deepest truths of ourselves; tales mixing imagination and facts. And we do not like our myths to die. 

During his dichotomous career, Jackson’s presence and image called for a designation. Accordingly, Berry Gordy, Jr. deemed him “simply the greatest entertainer that ever lived” (”Michael Jackson more than King of Pop”, Boston Globe, 7 July 2009). Since he was extraordinary, we sought an explanation of the mystery that was Michael Jackson. As myths give us a way of understanding mysteries, they can help to answer the questions relative to his life: Why did he suffer so much? Why did he die young? What was his superior mission?

Michael Jackson was a hero, but a heartrending one. The Greeks and Romans teach us that tragic myths are complex because tragic heroes are complex beings. Aristotle’s wisdom about these protagonists suffering irreparable loss at the hands of destiny is applicable to Jackson’s journey: he suffered disproportionately more than he deserved; he was intelligent and gifted at evoking pathos in his audience; and he had influence but was in conflict with external forces and internal demons. In translation, he had a flawed, tragic self.

Tragic protagonists, including Jackson, face a fate of their own undoing. Therein they can become more conscious, learning from their mistakes so as to ease future paths for themselves and others. But some protagonists, such as Jackson, live too long in the myth and thus create their own downfall, so their enlightenment is not fully realized.

Aristotle envisioned heroes as imperfect beings so audiences could relate to them. As we sat in Jackson’s audiences, most of us experienced catharsis via his joy and pain: we exalted in his extraordinary entertainment, pitied his longing for a childhood, became mortified at his outrageous acts, then feared his demise. The myth was reflexive—standing on opposite sides of a mirror, we and he mythologized in likeness, constructing a superhuman place for him to live and for us to travel vicariously. 

The Mythical Figure

Early in his extraordinary life, Jackson said he was taught that…

…if someone said something about me that wasn’t true, it was a lie. But if someone said something about my image that wasn’t true, then it was okay. Because then it wasn’t a lie, it was public relations (J. Randy Taraborrelli, Michael Jackson: The Magic, the Madness, the Whole Story: 1958-2009, Grand Central Publishing, 2009, p. 54).

Why is this notion at issue if his words are the basis of show business? In a word: excess. In another word: risk. His excessive life lead to great peril.

A musical genius and perfectionist from a young age, Jackson experienced success until the fierce disappointment regarding the lack of respect from the music industry for his Off the Wall album (1979). Discussing his case with lawyer John Branca, Jackson argued, “I sold five million in the US, six million foreign. That’s a big record. It was totally unfair that it didn’t get Record of the Year, and it can never happen again” (Taraborrelli, p. 191). From great dissatisfaction came victory in 1982 with Thriller: sales of 13 million albums globally and a record 12 Grammy nominations. Subsequently, Jackson worked vigorously to stay atop musically, with mixed results.

Aristotle argued “the tragic hero…must occupy a ‘high’ status position but must ALSO embody nobility and virtue as part of his innate character” (E. Hibbison and D. Reiss, “Aristotle’s Ideas about Tragedy”, VCCS Litonline, 6 Nov. 2007 ). Jackson did not call himself a “prince” nor a “lord of pop,” but a “king,” which in its connotative meaning, spells both privilege and possible doom unless the king becomes enlightened. Similar to the Beatles, Jackson occupied “rarefied territory in popular music studies: universally acknowledged” (Sarah Hill, “Oliver Julien, ed., Sgt. Pepper and the Beatles: It was Forty Years Ago Today”, Journal of the Society for Ethnomusicology, 53.2, 2009,p. 29). With this anointment and foray into this atypical terrain comes tremendous pressure to sustain the myth.

In his mind and his fans’ hearts, Jackson was the “King of Pop,” a title Bob Jones, his commanding publicist at Motown, “had bestowed upon him because Michael wanted a moniker like Bruce Springsteen, Frank Sinatra, and Elvis” (Hill, p. 49). At his kingdom of Neverland, Jackson even sat upon a golden, gilt chair fit for nobility. Later, the superstar arrived at the 1984 Grammy Awards for his anointing ceremony wearing his royal sheath and rhinestoned glove.

There is always an element of apprehension when a high mortal reaches this level after   encountering and essentially conquering the opposing forces. Why? The arc is now in sight. Our human consciousness knows that what goes up must come down. Our collective instinct tells us that once one has reached the pinnacle, there is a subsequent descent that one can travel with either ease or strain. In the case of tragic heroes: strain.

Jackson rose remarkably and consistently until he had reached the arc and peered over the edge rather unintentionally. In his band’s song, “Let’s Get the Show on the Road”, Michael Stanley sings, “One thing to remember when you’re climbing to the top / You better know the way back down”. Yet, Jackson did not prepare for a “way back down,” or worse, even seemed to know there was an opposite side to the arc.

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