Mythologizing Michael Jackson

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.

Aristotle’s Criteria for a Tragic Hero

Aristotle’s Criteria for a Tragic Hero

Aristotle’s acumen in The Poetics designates criteria of character for the tragic hero. First, the tragic hero must “portray efforts to bring about a ‘good’ result” in the world while displaying “a zealous and energetic goodness” (Humphrey House, Aristotle’s Poetics: A Course of Eight Lectures. Rupert Hart-Davis, 1961, p. 84-85). Jackson loved his fans and wanted to fully ignite their delightful response to his entertainment. He worked valiantly on behalf of his fans, “obsessed with perfection…rehears[ing] hour after hour, working till he gets a move or routine exactly right” (Margo Jefferson, On Michael Jackson, Vintage, 2006, p. 87). At least in the earlier years, it would be difficult to deny Jackson was, in essence, a “good” person.

Secondly, the hero must be “appropriate,” that is, in modern terms, fit the situation. Jackson was a member of the highest echelon of rock and theater stars — he befriended many including Elizabeth Taylor and Diana Ross, married the daughter of one in Lisa Marie Presley, and ensconced, then later distanced, himself vis-à-vis his famed family. He was every bit the star from boyhood to adulthood and, in fact, slid easily into the appropriateness of a celebrity until he violated social norms by some outrageous acts.

Third, the figure must be “like reality,” in other words, natural or organic, which do not quite fit Jackson outside of his musicianship. However, since he was not “like reality,” it was a natural that he built a myth in which to live. Since he did not have a childhood, he watched cartoons and befriended children. It was unsurprising that he obsessed over Peter Pan, extending the myth to a “friend,” if only a constructed one.

Fourth, the figure acts with consistency and is perceived as “whole.” Without fail, Jackson’s actions were two sides of a whole: extraordinary and eccentric, and he never veered from these two characteristics.

Aristotle’s Tragic Hero Model: Harmartia, Peripeteia, and Anagnorisis

Further analyzing his mythology, Jackson patterned Aristotle’s representation of a tragic hero fully. First, Aristotle describes harmartia as “a misfortune…brought upon him not by vice and depravity but by some error of judgment” (House, p. 93). In modern terms, harmartia is the tragic flaw commonly categorized under the Seven Deadly Sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. The last, also known as hubris, best fits Jackson in its definition: excessive pride shown in actions of extremity. He was enormously proud of his music, dance, and reputation, but most of all his ability to showcase his talent and thrill an audience.

Insofar that tragic figures exhibited pride, it is deemed a flaw if in excess, “a specific error which a man makes or commits” (House, p. 94). Jackson’s error, his hubris or his pride shield that he held at arm’s length, allowed him to behave behind it mysteriously and live the mythology rather than reality deemed too harsh for his sensitive, genius, misunderstood self. His shield hid the pain of loneliness and the difficult demands of his father and show business. Clearly, Joseph Jackson played a role in catapulting Michael into the myth. Joseph Campbell explains the archetype of a boy separating from his father common in mythology:

When a child…turns to face the world of specialized adult action, it passes spiritually, into the sphere of the father — who becomes, for his son, the sign of the future task…whether he knows it or not, and no matter what his position in society, the father is the initiating priest through whom the young being passes on into the larger world… so now he… with this complication [understanding of good and evil]… is… the son against his father for the mastery of the universe (The Hero with a Thousand Faces, p. 135-137).

As his manager, Joseph underscored Michael’s pride while feeding his own. He initiated his son into the music world, then later Michael turned away in an effort to gain control over his trajectory.

Harmatia, according to Aristotle, originates in “ignorance of some material fact or circumstance” (House, p. 94). By his own admission, Michael Jackson was a child in an adult’s body, thereby ignorant of ways to fully actualize as an adult and set appropriate boundaries with children. Instead, he became their peer (noted in his friendships with Macaulay Culkin and Gary Coleman). And his ignorance produced an outcome different from the norm. When young Michael Jackson sang and commanded the stage like a 30-year-old Motown veteran, who among us thought he would become a tragic figure?

Surely he did not aim at this goal, but he consciously chose to forestall his life in a childhood fantasyland that gave way to a fall. His pride motivated him to stay in this suspended reality. After all, he wrote in the song “Childhood” from HIStory (1995) that “no one understands me / They view it as such eccentricities… Its been my fate to compensate / For the childhood I’ve never known” (Mikal Gilmore, “Triumph and Tragedy”, Rolling Stone: Special Commemorative Issue, Michael Jackson: 1958-2009, 2009, p. 24). By mythologizing childhood, he willingly stepped back into a created one.

Jackson’s role model was ringmaster Phineas T. Barnum, a mythological figure himself. Similar to Barnum, Jackson loved to push the boundaries — Bubbles, hyperbaric oxygen chamber, elephant bones, and Neverland — at times even leaking these and other eccentrics to the public hotline. Charles Montgomery, a tabloid writer, said,

I realized that Michael Jackson liked to see himself portrayed in an absurd, bizarre way…I would do the biggest number of stories on Michael in the Enquirer. Before I ran anything, I would always check its accuracy with people closest to Michael. I almost always had full cooperation from his camp (Taraborrelli, p. 360).

At least Greek myths had some order and rationality to them, even if in a chaotic place. In his myth, Jackson departed from the order. The result? A step closer to the arc.

Harmartia is the catalyst for peripeteia, “a reversal of fortune, but more specifically, reversal of intention” (House, p. 96). His life transmuted from prosperity to misfortune. It was painful to watch Jackson’s face morph into a nearly unrecognizable visage, the child-molestation proceedings, the dangling of his youngest child over the balcony, and, as Berry Gordy, Jr. noted in his eulogy, “other questionable decisions.” We were puzzled at his exercises that seem to sever full rational thinking. He was now dancing in the myth more than the reality.

Edith Hamilton explains,

In the ancient [Greek] world, people were preoccupied with the visible…The sculptor watched the athletes contending in the games and he felt that nothing he could imagine would be would be as beautiful as those strong young bodies. So he made his statue of Apollo (Mythology, Little, Brown and Company, 1998, p. 8).

Modern sculptors — plastic surgeons and Jackson himself — altered his adult appearance, revealing his obsessive concern with image. At first heroic in his extreme pageantry, striking falsettos, and superhuman dance moves, his preoccupation turned too much on himself — a move toward the pitiable in his quest toward perfection.

Anagnorisis, according to Aristotle, is “the discovery, a change from ignorance to knowledge” (The Poetics, Heinemann LTD, 1939, p. 41). In modern terms, it’s learning the lesson by finally recognizing one’s shortcomings and the actions resulting therein. Unfortunately, Jackson never arrived at anagnorisis. His life stalled in peripeteia when charges against him were sordid and serious, and the seed of doubt was planted firmly in the public psyche. Only then did he seem to realize, but still not accept, his fall from public grace.

Hamartia, peripetia, and anagnorisis work together to form tragic plots of mythic proportions of which Jackson’s life was fitting. Encircling this model of tragedy is fate, which the Greeks referred to as “nemesis”. In modern times, we refer to this as “the enemy.” Relative to his personal nemesis, Jackson had an early instinct about his own death. After Jackson’s death, Lisa Marie Presley wrote in her online blog that she had spoken with Michael about her father’s death, quoting Jackson at the time: “I am afraid I am going to end up like him, the way he did” (“He Knew“, 26 June 2009). In addition, Michael Jackson apparently intuited his fate and feared his slide toward death would parallel Elvis Presley’s. Jackson had privately articulated his deepest fear: a tragedy, the unthinkable, would be realized.

The Fall

The Fall

When it no longer seemed Jackson could channel P.T. Barnum, he lost the steadiness and control of his pride shield. Notably, the myth began to break when hints of darker intentions opposing those original glorious ones surfaced. The downfall is partially the tragic hero’s fault when he exercises his free will. Therein Jackson began to question, “Why did people turn against me?”, “Why do people hate me?”, “What did I do wrong?” He viewed himself as a victim, sliding slowly down the arc, as he became exceedingly perplexed about the public’s reversed view. Reader polls showed low confidence in Jackson at this point. In Jackson’s life, he fell with the equal intensity of his rise. As is the case with tragic figures, redemption usually comes in the next phase. And still Jackson had “hoped for some redemption” (Taraborrelli, p. 381).

As the myth began to crack, Jackson made a television appearance in December of 1993 to refute the accusations, calling them “disgusting and totally false (Nick Madigan, “Michael Jackson’s Ranch Is Raided in Criminal Inquiry“, New York Times, 13 Nov 2003). He confronted the public, saying, “Don’t treat me like a criminal because I am innocent” (Madigan). Clearly, he made these denouncements in efforts to protect his dignity; he wanted to reverse his direction on the arc, to find the adulation once bestowed upon him.

Mythologized into the higher sanctum saved for victim souls of genius, he entered the same place as Joplin, Hendrix, Morrison, Gaye, and other artists before him; he danced in the land where fantasy and reality are a blurred collage. He had become his goal: the best, the biggest entertainer in history. He also became a mythical figure in the vein of artists from Elvis, Lennon, Cobain, and Shakur — deemed “the gods of rock, pop [who] often leave our world as tragic, frail humans” (John Petkovic, “The gods of rock, pop often leave our world as tragic, frail humans”, The Plain Dealer, 28 June 2009, p. E2). Too many rock artists have died too young from drug- or alcohol-related deaths. They seemed to view their artistic expression on the world stage as a drug in itself. Unfortunately,

the allure of fame is often deceiving. Not just to those who pursue it, but to fans who see mortals as gods. We see fame and money as the cure-all, until the famous die a tragic death (Petkovic, E2).

These “gods of rock [and] pop” rise and fall as if in Greek tragedies.

Jackson dealt with the forces of media backlash and legal accusations until they revealed him a broken man. When the price for fame became too high, Jackson could no longer pay monetarily to stave off the wicked forces, so he paid in blood. Left bereft, he was almost down until he, like many tragic figures before him, tried again and again to climb up the arc by licking his wounds, marrying twice, becoming father to three children, and later, leading rehearsals for a 50-concert tour in London. All this underscored by his continual emotional and physical turmoil. Though he strove to once more reach a quixotic level, his broken self disallowed it.

The Redemption

Whether they achieve redemption or not, a hero’s tragic downfall is not supposed to be in vain. Redemption is moving from unawareness to awareness, to realize destiny by one’s own actions, then saving oneself and assisting others. Jackson was not a redeemer in his own life. He did, however, support others in strong charitable fashion (ex. Heal the World Foundation event). As noted during the one-year anniversary of his death, his fans are the redeemers in Jackson’s spectacular journey, keeping his music and legacy alive. Jackson’s pride, success, reversal of image, and death equated to one extraordinary and difficult expedition for this true artist. From a difficult journey comes enlightenment, but only if the tragic hero steps down from the myth and lives a nonfiction life. If not, death is eminent. The real tragedy here is that he could not save himself.

Jackson had reached a zenith with Thriller and his moonwalk on the Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, and Forever special in 1983, a pivotal point deemed “perfect” in its execution. Jackson continually strove to become an ideal musician and man. He himself confirmed, “I do want to be perfect. I look in the mirror, and I just want to change and be better” (Taraborrelli, p. 347). But there clearly existed a divide between his desired, unrealistic outcome and his limited power to achieve it. This was especially evident in his final rehearsals when he over-indulged in drugs to will his body, his instrument, to achieve the “final tour” in London. His hubris, which created this schism, had taken him up and down the arc. When one experiences that famous stratosphere, it is in itself a drug one wants to keep using. But, as the Greeks realized, mortals are mortals, and tragic protagonists such as Michael Jackson are mortal. In this way, maybe he was a more of a common man than a king. Though Jackson fought “to maintain his place in the pop myth hierarchy” (Jefferson, p. 92), he faltered just as other tragic artists had before him. He had learned the difficult lesson: we cannot exist in myths indefinitely.

As audience members, each phase of a tragic figure’s journey engenders our pity, our perplexity, our pardon. We experience the catharsis, releasing pent-up emotions of sympathy and dread. The tortured soul in Jackson evoked our pity; his death evoked our fear. Believing catharsis was, in fact, a healthy experience, the Greeks celebrated theater as a common public event. With the advent of television and the Internet, we now have the stage in our private homes, but it is the theater of tragedy just the same.

In the end, the tragic “protagonist must face the world alone, unaccomodated, and kick against his fate” (Edwin Wilson, “Greek Drama Notes“, 12 Jan 2009). Jackson did not escape his nemesis, but he did insist upon accommodating fate on his own terms. Tragedies such as Jackson’s do offer a redemptive measure: we can reaffirm life is worth living, despite suffering. We affirm that Jackson was not “one of us” and appreciate his music. Since he himself seemed to die from his unyielding quest toward the mythic, perhaps Jackson’s larger mission was to remind us that perfectionism, try as we might to achieve, is itself a myth. And that, in itself, is not a myth.