The Slow Murder of Michael Jackson: Fear and
the Sexiness of the Undead
By Polar Levine, MusicDish.com
John Ashcroft's thirst for capital punishment aside,
America's thirst for death as catharsis and entertainment still
hasn't gotten around to FOX's inserting live executions into its
reality TV lineup. For the moment we'll have to be satisfied with
the much slower Jacko hunt.
I believe the media is chasing a very unbalanced and vulnerable man
to suicide to be followed by a year-long explosion of Michael Jackson
tributes, posthumous music releases, bioPix, merchandise and -- when
all has been said and sold -- soul-searching questions about our own
culpability in our victim's demise. I'll be amazed if Jackson reaches
his fiftieth birthday.
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I'd say, "go get him" if I were aware of any serious
evidence of child molestation. As a dad of a young kid, I take a
hard stand on pedophilia. But as far as I'm concerned a 45-year-old
man sleeping in the same bed with a child, adult or any other mammal
is not the same as having sex. Like having a Bud is not the same
as being an alcoholic. Like being a Muslim is not the same as being
a terrorist. No specific evidence of sex with children has been
publicly disclosed. For that matter, I'm not sure Michael Jackson
has a history of sex with any human, animal or vegetable. His true
crime is being weird. More specifically, his true crime is being
weird in precisely the same way that our pop culture is weird --
but he's a few years ahead of the curve.
Alleged pedophilia aside, let's look at his weird
activity. His obsession with his looks coupled with his surgical
alterations reflect the same obsessions and alterations found in
much of our mainstream youth-worshipping society. Compulsive shopping
sprees reflect America's extreme style of consumerism where buying
unnecessary stuff is a mode of entertainment and shopping ourselves
into debt has become not just a mundane activity, but our patriotic
duty. His over-the-top new age Hallmark rhetoric reflects our own
taste for draping doilies in the form of kitsch and sentimentality
over our anxiety and terror.
Michael Jackson has lived an extreme life and he acts
out his culturally-derived fears and anxieties in an extreme version
of the way millions of Americans act out. We're living in a hothouse
of media-projected fear. The entertainment/infotainment industry
derives much of its cash flow from the violence it amuses us with
in movies, video games, tv dramas and the news. The nightly perpwalk
has been a staple of local news broadcasts for decades and the droning
headlines and newsmag features on serial killers, pedophiles, terrorists,
muggers, scam artists, epidemics and countless possibilities for
injuries are as regular as cornflakes. Michael Moore's 'Bowling
For Columbine' brings this fear factor chillingly to light.
No study seems to conclusively link this steady diet
of violence to a violent society, so it's hard for people to consciously
attempt a movement to put on the brakes. I believe we've been focusing
all these studies on the wrong question. People may not be more
likely to kill as a result of this diet of non-stop media violence
but it certainly leads to a pervasive culture of free-floating fear.
This unconscious blanket of fear gets played out in
a variety of ways, often in rituals adopted by different subcultures.
When fear is free-floating, as opposed to based on a specific real
threat, we feel compelled to detach from life to some degree to
ease the pressure. Drugs are the most obvious escape. But there
are other equally destructive roads out of reality. Entertainment
binging is epidemic: watching tv, playing computer and video games,
recreational shopping. The comforting certainty of fundamentalism
-- theological, political or philosophical -- has a powerful attraction.
The cult of beauty and sexiness, like money, is the
requisite currency of happiness. It attracts love, riches and the
eternal happy ending. The hipster set has discovered the reality-buffering
qualities of extreme irony as though wrapping our fears in graphic
dark humor punctuated by a blasZ® "whatever" will say "BOO!!" and
make all those scary issues of mortality, non prettiness and decrepitude
flee from consciousness. Every day we receive information and instructions
from prerecorded voices -- the chit chat of the "undead."
Our fear and loathing of Michael Jackson is the fear
and loathing of our own attraction to the road he's taken. We're
predisposed by instinct to recoil at the recognition of our own
death trip. Jackson is being crucified for the sins of our cult
of artifice and detachment.
Michael Jackson has been living in public since he
was ten. He's the prototype for 'The Truman Show.' Imagine going
through puberty and adolescence in front of a fleet of cameras.
The world gets to see, hear and comment on our sexual awakening
and cluelessness, on our bodies going bonkers: zits, voice changing
(a singer's voice), too fat, too skinny, nose too big, not nice
enough, not down enough, too politically conscious for Young America,
too soft for the streets, too black, too white. Too much responsibility.
Not enough fun.
The Jackson 5 hit the charts during the chaos of the
anti-war movement and the militant phase of the civil rights movement.
Michael was too young and too driven by the commercial demands of
his family and his mentor/employer Berry Gordy to tap into the political/philosophical
side of youth culture -- a rare sliver of time when young people
had goals deeper than fun and status. His major breakthrough occurred
in the 80's as a solo artist during the Reagan era when our lingering
humiliation over Watergate and America's first military defeat sought
relief in nostalgia for the certainties of the 50's.
Coupled with the birth of MTV, materialism replaced
social consciousness as the reigning aesthetic of youth culture.
Artiface and acquisition, vogueing and coke, polyester motorcycle
jackets and business suits. Fashion models became superstars just
because they were pretty, corporate CEOs because they were rich,
and Robin Leach because he publicly swooned over the rich and pretty
for our amusement. Jackson was the most famous rich pretty person
The pressure to stay young and pretty, coupled with
the onset of his alleged skin condition (vitiligo, which causes
irregularly shaped white blotches on the skin), must have put this
hopelessly exposed and fragile man-child into an ongoing dull roar
of panic. The extreme nature of his fame, visibility and the pressure
to maintain the winning formula in a formula-bound youth culture
must have been crushing to a person who had known nothing but pop
The call to surgically derived youth had been answered
long before Michael Jackson got to it. But Jackson, unlike his nipped
and tucked predecessors, was introduced to the scalpel at a time
when the technology of virtual youth offered transformative potential
that would have given Mary Shelly the creeps. And few humans of
any age had Michael Jackson's enormous wealth with which to indulge
surgery to such monstrous ends. Only in horror stories of the "undead"
were these transformations previously contemplated: 'Frankenstein,'
'The Island Of Dr. Moreau' and zombie flicks like 'Dawn of The Dead.'
The enormity of his talents has only been surpassed
by the depths of his preventive isolation. His pathological drive
to stay young for his adolescent market and his lack of intellectual
curiosity and maturity precluded evolving into a "mature" artist
like Al Green, Sting, Mick Jagger and Robert Plant, whose records
are no longer guaranteed to sell multi-platinum but allow for longterm
The audience that grew up with Michael Jackson would
certainly forgive him for aging along with them. He could have let
the teeny boppers serve the teeny boppers. Instead he chose the
reality-defying strategy of being a teenager for life. Steven Tyler
proved that a popstar could remain a teenager in the head for life.
Committing one's body to this goal is a hard wall to bang and Jackson
is a banged up old guy for trying.
Fear is a soul-twisting thing; but no fear is as distorting
as a generalized fear of reality. The cult of fear and its antidote
-- artifice -- leads to a dead end. Artiface is a facsimile of life
-- the aesthetic of the "undead." Death metal, fashion models posed
and lit to look starved and devoid of consciousness, serial face-lifting
that renders a person's face a cadaverous mask, the Tarrantino fetish
of graphic violence as comedy.
I have no aesthetic or principled objection with a
bit of nip and tuck and bucket of hair paint. But taken too far,
the effect becomes self-defeating. A person who's had a dozen face
lifts looks more dead than vital. A face that's been marinated in
Botox looks more like a wax museum replica of a young person than
a living one. The fact that we identify these deathly faces with
youth and sexiness rather then sickness says much about our growing
confusion over reality and artiface.
The eroticism of deadness is everywhere. The punk
era popularized the black lipstick and mascara look of a cadaver.
A woman's face with so much makeup as to obscure emotional expressiveness
is generally associated with sexiness as is the dissipated manequin-chic
that typifies so much fashion modeling. The exquisiteness of design
and the fact that much of this aesthetic has a nudge-nudge-wink-wink
aspect doesn't lighten its weight in the overall cultural lexicon,
particularly as it filters down to younger generations who are unaware
of the original ironic allusions.
If all of us could afford the excesses of Michael
Jackson, how abnormal would he then be? Could I go that far and
not know it? That's the scary question we ask ourselves when we
rubberneck our tv every time he appears. It's our own cult of necrophilia
that causes the air to vibrate when we see that face and hear that
voice recite the Peter Pan platitudes in a woozy soprano. We're
terrified but can't look away. His music is now merely an asterisk
on his resumZ®\Z®. Removing him is the only way out of our discomforting
addiction to sensational coverage his ever-evolving creepiness.
And pedophilia is the silver bullet.
Last year I watched the BBC documentary on Jackson.
It was a truly repellant experience. The only thing more horrifying
was the parade of coverage and commentary that revealed a bizarre
giddiness in its malice. Whom did he murder? Whose life savings
did he scam? Whose job did he outsource?
Why are so many people so sure he's a pedophile despite
the absence of any reported clear evidence? Would we so readily
believe Oprah or Derek Jeter to be guilty of pedophilia? We believe
what we're comfortable believing. And we want to believe Michael
Jackson is guilty. We want to believe that it's impossible for an
adult to lie in bed with a child or adolescent without any sexual
activity or motivations.
Is it possible that a young kid with cancer who's
been told by the medical authorities that he'll soon die has moments
of sheer terror? That he's had his youth stolen from him and is
alone in the world while other people float outside in a festival
of normalcy? Could he have wanted his sympathetic famous benefactor
to lie next to him and maybe even rock him to sleep? Is it possible
that Michael Jackson knows exactly who this kid is and wants to
give him some peace?
I have no way of knowing what Jackson did or didn't
do. I do know that our slow collective public murder of this man
is one of the ugliest non-military media spectacles I've ever witnessed.
If we're not ashamed, then we truly are the undead.
by the MusicDish
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It 2004 - Republished with Permission