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The Slow Murder of Michael Jackson: Fear and the Sexiness of the Undead
By Polar Levine,

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.

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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.

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 on earth.

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 music success.

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 creative careers.

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.

Provided by the MusicDish Network. Copyright © Tag It 2004 - Republished with Permission