Michael Jackson’s death serves to remind us of the amorality of the pop and entertainment industry, writes Eddie Ford
Much to the delight of media-owners everywhere, Michael Jackson died suddenly last week after being taken to a Los Angeles hospital. He was aged only 50 and was about to embark on a 50-concert ‘comeback’ tour starting on July 13 at London’s O2 arena. The consequent wall-to-wall coverage, bursting like a tsunami, has made it impossible to ignore the tragic – and often truly bizarre – life story of the ‘king of pop’.
Clearly, there has been an outpouring of popular – deflected – grief for Jackson, not entirely dissimilar to the wave of anguish generated by the equally sudden, shock death of Diana Spencer. Many millions feel some sort of emotional attachment to a man they had never met, or only saw on a giant projection screen at some stadium. So we see Filipino prisoners on Sunday in the provincial jail in Cebu – who became an instant YouTube hit in 2007 for their Thriller routine – donning saffron uniforms and zombie make-up again to expertly dance to various well-known Jackson songs, such as ‘I’ll be there’, ‘We are the world’, and ‘Ben’. In explanation, one of the prison security consultants, Byron Garcia, remarked: “The inmates consider Michael Jackson as a god here” (http://tinyurl.com/lgoemd).
It would be churlish in the extreme to deny that Jackson was a talented individual. Opinions differ, naturally, as to where his true talents and abilities lay. For example, possibly suffering from a touch of hyperventilation, Germaine Greer compared Jackson to Dionysus and Orpheus – not to mention “fellow transcendent dancing boys” Nijinsky and Nureyev, who were but “two candles pale in the light of Jackson’s blazing star” (The Guardian June 26). While Quincy Jones, who produced the mega-selling Thriller album, stated: “He was the consummate entertainer and his contributions and legacy will be felt upon the world forever” (http://tinyurl.com/m7gxpx).
In death as in life, Jackson’s passing is surrounded by controversy and febrile speculation – some of a fanciful nature, as is only to be expected. Though it will still be several weeks before the results of the first post-mortem are known – somewhat unsurprisingly, the toxicology tests are proving to be very time-consuming – Jackson’s family are now awaiting the results of a second post-mortem. The understandably distressed Joe Jackson, Michael’s father, even hinted at one stage that he thought “foul play” might be a possible explanation for his son’s death.
Then we have the depressingly inevitable sordid squabbling over Jackson’s vast fortune – exactly who gets exactly what? So, according to the legal papers filed on behalf of the family, Jackson died without a valid will. Yet the Wall Street Journal claims that the entertainer drafted one back in 2002, which divvied up his estate between various charities, his mother and his three young children (Prince Michael, Paris Michael Katherine Jackson and Prince Michael II). The Associated Press news agency, for one, is reporting that Jackson had some $567.6 million (£345 million) in combined assets – such as his Disneyesque Neverland ranch, his share of Sony/ATV Music Publishing, including the rights (ie, royalties) to the Beatles’ back catalogue, numerous cars, various antiques and collectibles, etc.
In other words, a lot of dosh to get het up about. And enough paper trails and e-trails to keep lawyers, accountants, financial advisers and all such manner of creatures extremely busy, and in clover, for decades.
Jackson’s death gives us a glimpse, once again, of the grotesque and profoundly distorting celebrity culture which the insatiable mass media both reflects and promotes – and lauds. Whether it be pop royalty like Jackson, ‘real’ royalty like members of the dysfunctional Windsor family, film stars or the fading and wannabe celebrities featured in soul-destroying shows such as The X-factor, Britain’s got talent, Big brother, Hell’s kitchen, Strictly come dancing, I’m a celebrity – get me out of here and so interminably on. All indications of a perverse and alienated ‘greasy pole’ society.
And undeniably Michael Jackson is just about the ultimate example of the awesomely destructive power of the mass media and celebrity culture – and a sad masterclass in alienation and estrangement.
However, all this is only to be expected when you examine, if only for a moment, Jackson’s extremely aberrant childhood and upbringing – which saw him being ruthlessly exploited by both his father and Berry Gordy, the Motown pop mogul. As a founder member and lead singer of the Jackson Five – where he closely modelled his dancing on the unquestionably great James Brown – the young Michael acquired astonishing levels of fame and money at a disturbingly early age. Instead of throwing a football around, hanging about with the kids next door, playing games and learning basic life skills, from the age of five Michael was working as a professional entertainer and all that means in terms of relentless rehearsals, gruelling tours and exhausting recording sessions. The Jackson Five made 15 records for Motown and with their first four singles making it to No1 in the US this generated a huge income stream (not least for Motown records). With the job consuming his life from such an early age who wouldn’t get screwed up? Added to which the family were also devout members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Michael actually engaged in door-to-door evangelising in ‘disguise’ – only in 1987 did he formally break with the religion.
So, of course, it came as no great surprise in 1992 when he told the Oprah Winfrey show of his extraordinary domineering father, whose obsessive – almost Faustian – desire to see Michael ‘succeed’ in the music/entertainment business meant sacrificing his son’s chances of living any sort of normal or satisfying childhood. The poor Michael was almost doomed to a stunted, wretched, existence – fatally prone to all manner of irrational and morbid whims and desires. Rather than an enviable superstar in charge of his own destiny, Jackson was more a slave to celebrity culture and its addictive, gaudy trappings.
Hence his crazily self-indulgent spending patterns, akin to a decadent monarch or aristocrat of old. His longstanding, and confessed, addiction to a toxic cocktail of painkillers and various other prescription drugs – which may well have led to his death. His two absurdly inappropriate, and disastrous, marriages – the first of which, to Lisa Marie Presley (Elvis’s daughter), was widely regarded as being unconsummated. His statement that the youngest child, Prince Michael II (aka ‘Blanket’) was the result of artificial insemination from an undisclosed surrogate mother and his own sperm cells. Making the spoon-bending, harebrained screwball and semi-fraudster, Uri Geller – who insists that his ‘paranormal powers’ were given to him by aliens – his ‘personal advisor’. His friendship to Elizabeth Taylor and Liza Minnelli – not exactly role models of how to lead a healthy, balanced life. And sleeping in an ‘oxygen bubble’ to prevent ageing.
No wonder that Jackson invested so much time and energy, and money, in concocting a fantasy liberation on earth – thus the aptly named Neverland, though many would regard it as more of a dystopia than a utopia. A pseudo-retreat, a bolt-hole, from the unbearable pressures, and generalised insanity, of what was Michael Jackson’s life.
But, having said all that, communists stress that none of this automatically made him into some sort of criminal or monster – least of all a “serial paedophile” who uses “pornography and alcohol” in order to “groom” young boys, as was alleged four years ago by the prosecution lawyer at the media circus that passed itself off as a trial. Though eventually acquitted, Jackson faced 10 charges relating to the supposed sexual abuse of a then 13-year-old male teenager, Gavin Arvizo, which saw the singer also charged with “conspiracy to kidnap” and “administering an intoxicating agent”.
Indeed, before and after the trial, Jackson had been dogged for many years by accusations – and rumours – of ‘paedophilia’ and the sexual abuse of ‘minors’. Yet the essential point for communists is that, even if Jackson had been guilty of the charges, this would have demonstrated the need for effective treatment – not to be cast into the nightmarish and criminal US prison system, which contains some 2.3 million inmates (disproportionately black). Or inhumanely shoved into the specialised colleges of paedophilia that the ‘rule 43’ segregated wings create.
There is one particularly disturbing aspect to the sorry Michael Jackson story. In his hit song, ‘Black and white’, Jackson sings: “I said if you’re thinkin’ of being my brother, it don’t matter if you’re black or white.” But, of course, it certainly mattered to Michael Jackson – it mattered a great deal. He wanted to be both black and white. Or, to put it another way, Jackson was a living example – if that term is not in bad taste – of how racialised United States society still is, Barack Obama or not. Only a fool would say otherwise.
Hence the utterly bizarre changes to Jackson’s skin pigmentation – making him paler and paler. Whether this was due to a powerful course of drugs or the effect produced by a highly sophisticated hi-tech mask is still unclear.
Here we have a striking paradox. Jackson – a black man – gained an audience amongst white listeners. In that sense, Jackson played a progressive role in breaking down racial segregation – musical and otherwise. Yet it seems that in order to reach out and capture this audience, he felt impelled to become a ‘white’ person as well as a black person. Clearly whiteness represented some ideal of beauty in a mind that was shaped by 1960s US racism.
Jackson’s demise serves to remind us of the fundamentally amoral nature of the ‘bubblegum’ pop and entertainment industry, which depends (and increasingly so) for its enormous profits on the exploitation of children – whether as performers or consumers. This means the ceaseless and cynical manipulation of the fancies, whims and fantasies of pre- and early teen girls and boys, especially girls. Such an industry by its very nature – just like capitalism in general – breeds rapacious greed and, more often than not, malfunctioning and thoroughly one-dimensional, non-rounded, hapless human beings.
Like Elvis Presley, Phil Spector and the unfortunate ‘Wacko Jacko’.