Friday, June 26, 2009

We are the world, and we suck

I won't be breaking any news if I start off by saying what you know already: this week (and Thursday, in particular) the world lost two super-famous people, Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett. Three, if you count Ed McMahon. (By pure coincidence, I spent much of yesterday practicing the music I need to play for a funeral today.)

Insert here the usual caveat about how there is more pressing stuff going on in the world. Still, all three departures were pretty fucking dramatic and sad. And Michael Jackson, as the lone musician in the group, is probably the one I should try to say something artistically insightful about.

Instead, I find myself wondering what really killed him.

I'm not talking about what the autopsy will reveal (thanks anyway, Dr. Gupta). I'm talking about the music business in particular, and the mass consumption of art in general. I'm talking about the media machine and its peculiar bloodlusts. And I'm talking about me and you: music fans who buy into and prop up stupid ideas like "the king of pop."

There's complicity enough to go around. Jackson himself made a number of really bad choices. But it's not enough to simply write him off as a crazy dude who is alone responsible for his fate. He was also a product of a system that we all (any of us who ever bought a record or watched MTV, anyway) participated in.

To you Jackson haters: can you, in your heart of hearts, guarantee that you would not eventually go off the deep end if one of your parental units brutally forced you into a professional entertainment career before you knew the first goddamn thing about the world? Can you guarantee your continued sanity if you turned out to be so famous that meaningful personal relationships became problematic, or even impossible? Are you that strong and imperturbable? Really?

To you Jackson fans: can you, in your heart of hearts, guarantee that you would love Jackson's music nearly as much if he had never sold millions, or billions, or however-the-fuck-many records? Did your love of his music (or him) depend on (or at least correlate with) his fame? No? Well, he evidently thought it did. Where did he get that idea?

I know it's important to focus on the music, but dig: the way the music was loved ultimately helped ensure that there wasn't more of it. So the fame problem became a musical problem.

There has been talk about how Jackson, in his bizarre later life, was the victim of enablers who infiltrated his inner circle. But we were all enablers. I mean, shit: even in death everyone wants a piece of this man. It was fascinating (and a little disturbing) to watch the explosion of furtive status updates across Facebook and Twitter as the news emerged yesterday: and the frenzy that obtained as people tried to confirm the initial TMZ report occasionally gave way to a sense of, well, petulant entitlement. Some people actually seemed pissed off that they were not immediately informed as soon as Jackson was gone. As if the news was really about them, or someone close to them.

So it's the culture, stupid. Andrew Sullivan has what seems to me to be the best obit so far, because he makes precisely this point:

There are two things to say about him. He was a musical genius; and he was an abused child. By abuse, I do not mean sexual abuse; I mean he was used brutally and callously for money, and clearly imprisoned by a tyrannical father. He had no real childhood and spent much of his later life struggling to get one. He was spiritually and psychologically raped at a very early age - and never recovered. Watching him change his race, his age, and almost his gender, you saw a tortured soul seeking what the rest of us take for granted: a normal life.

But he had no compass to find one; no real friends to support and advise him; and money and fame imprisoned him in the delusions of narcissism and self-indulgence. Of course, he bears responsibility for his bizarre life. But the damage done to him by his own family and then by all those motivated more by money and power than by faith and love was irreparable in the end. He died a while ago. He remained for so long a walking human shell. [...]

I grieve for him; but I also grieve for the culture that created and destroyed him. That culture is ours' and it is a lethal and brutal one: with fame and celebrity as its core values, with money as its sole motive, it chewed this child up and spat him out.

Yes, it chewed him up and spat him out. That's it exactly. Except that we're still chewing. Now I see people smiling, laughing, dancing outside the hospital. Now I see the smug broadcasters playing their part like predictable actors in some sick, tired play. Jackson was preparing for a "comeback tour," but in a way, this is the "greatest" comeback he could have devised, according to the rules of the game. In premature death, his fate is now sealed.

One of the hallmarks of the digital age has (supposedly) been the gradual erosion of the music industry star system. That was the world Jackson inhabited. Is it going to finally die with him? Cuz in the long run, it isn't doing anybody any good.

Anyway, RIP.


Brad said...

Excellent post.

Stephanie Han said...

Good post, I clicked through via a facebook comment...what a life...

Jason Parker said...

Wow. I have enjoyed your writing for a while now, Andrew, but this is something else. Of all the MJ talk I've heard and read in the last 24 hours this is by far the most powerful. And disturbing (in the way I think you meant it to be).


Mr. Tapeworm said...

I think a story told by Cousin Brucie (!) is emblematic of Jackson's sad life and the media's misunderstanding of his predicament/pathology.

Brucie said he went, with a camera crew, to interview Michael Jackson when Jackson was about eight years old. Jackson, most assuredly exhausted from touring, making personal appearances, etc., was napping. Joe Jackson, however, insisted that he wake up, come downstairs and do the interview.

Brucie laughed. He thought it was funny and cute, but it's a small slice of what ultimately drove Michael Jackson insane. Let the kid sleep! He's eight!

Most folks would channel their childhood angst into more socially acceptable tics and quirks, but Michael Jackson had enough money to indulge/cover up his grotesque fantasies. Some of them might seem cute at first glance ("He has a zoo at his house! For the children!"), but if any middle-aged man in my neighborhood did that, we'd peg him as a perv in an instant.

A tragic man, a horrible man, a supremely talented man, until his past got the best of him.

(And why did I write all this? Off the Wall is great and all, but ...)

Anonymous said...

Love this existential post. I wish I had as much compassion as you do.

BTW, thats not me in that video. NOT me...

Anonymous said...

Yes, a powerfully written post, and yet, and yet...I suspect the celebrity stuff was less important than than the physical abuse, which is a common enough problem, independent of the former, and the victims of which often end up much, much worse off than Michael did.

As for the idea of celebrity culture going away, well, I think I've linked to the relevant essay in one too many blogs (maybe even here), but you can google "Krugman" and "celebrity economy" if you're curious.

I have always loved the Jackson 5, whereas my reaction to the later hits was mainly, "God, what happened to his voice?" Though, (in case you're actually interested in reading more about him) this article by Anne Powers in today's Calendar section makes me curious about some of those later songs...

Anyway, Sullivan has been on a roll lately, hasn't he? Almost makes me forgive him for being such a c. back in 2003 or so. Almost.

Andrew Durkin said...

Many thanks, all, for reading.

Anonymous no. 2: I agree that the abuse was the root problem. But I also think the two problems (abuse / celebrity culture) were interrelated, especially if you go back to Jackson Sr.'s motivations for sending his kids down this path in the first place. I don't want to make too many calls from the sidelines here, but it seems clear to me that any parent who gets caught up in that sort of thing (I notice this in the pageant culture Moms too) has their own self-esteem issues, and they see the potential stardom of their kid as a solution to that. But why? Because of all of the power and prestige that seems to accrue in the celebrity world, I think.

I'm also partial to the Jackson 5 era stuff, though I do like many tracks from the Off The Wall and Thriller era.

The Dissonance said...

Everyone needs friends, friends who will give you reality checks every once in a while like, "Dude, that's just stupid." I suspect Michael didn't have these kind of friends, or couldn't handle them. Sad that so many greats die early. Absolute Power corrupts absolutely.

Anonymous #2 said...

One more thing: a few commenters seem to take it as a given that he was a pedophile. Of course, he showed no concern about behavior that would contribute to this impression, but it strikes me as telling to contrast this with the lengths to which he supposedly went to conceal his sexual relationships with adult men. Anyway, for what it's worth, the more I read about him, the more I feel that he probably wasn't one.

Unknown said...

Great post Andrew. Sullivan's obit sums up what I've been saying, which is that essentially Michael has been mostly dead for years now, a walking (and occasionally dancing) corpse if you will. Only now are we grieving for the man, when we should have been grieving for him all along. Instead we marveled at the circus that he quite literally created for himself. Now that he is really truly dead, we all grieve. But are we actually grieving the loss of a man who was a genius of music and movement? Or are we grieving the loss of the circus which we won't get to watch anymore?