I hated Michael Jackson. I hated him in the way every young sophisticate turns his nose up at popular culture when he enters his teens. Jackson was the cherry on top of a huge mound of ‘80s mall culture; Pac Man, Care Bears, New Coke, Rubik’s Cubes, parachute pants and Casio keyboards, kiddie crap now all sun-faded and broken on thrift store shelves. He was the King of Pop, anathema to a kid embracing drugs, punk rock and adolescent alienation. He was the definition of “heavy rotation”, his 15-minute Thriller video being the one bit of MTV programming that could force video-addicted youth to change the channel. He was a media-inflicted rash that wouldn’t go away.
In truth, there was no real reason to hate him beyond his ubiquity - and perhaps the fact that, despite being a monument of youth culture, Jackson represented the old guard of shopworn entertainment. Choreographed dancing was not cool, even if it featured zombies. Stage dives were cool. Guitar smashing was cool. Synchronized dance moves were not, at least not among rhythmically-challenged white boys. Had MJ thrown down on the skate ramp he might’ve bought a little street cred, but moonwalking in his little bow tie, no matter how skillfully, was just plain fruity.
I was tempted to feel sorry for Michael when the press turned on him. But I remembered that Michael himself had been feeding the rumor mill for kicks in the old days, leaking bullshit stories about sleep chambers and the Elephant Man’s bones. Still, those old days began to seem quaint, and I found myself growing fonder of the Michael Jackson of yesterday. What were one or two nose jobs, more or less? Michael was still black then, qualifying him as a success story in breaking racial barriers in the music biz (where would Prince be without him?). Sure, he was weird. He lived with a monkey and acted like a seven-year-old girl, but hell, did you get a look at Adam Ant or the chick from the Thompson Twins? T’was the season for Blade Runner makeup and haircare exotica. Who singled out Michael Jackson for pop star oddity?
By ’87 something had changed, or perhaps I should say, worsened. The video for “Bad” debuted. Michael was white. He had a horrible little Miss Piggy nose. The weirdness wasn’t cute anymore. But oddly enough, in showing this evidence of inner turmoil (self-hatred?), in destroying his real identity to further embody a fictionalized, media-generated version of himself, Michael Jackson seemed more real to me. What had been, in my teen estimation, overrated pop stardom with nothing genuine to express, was now expressing something very interesting. He had become the pure embodiment of American fame, more tabloid than man, a poster child for the poison of media celebrity. Jackson became convinced that he could literally carve a new face for himself, and that this would be necessary to reflect the ultra-humanity that pop godhood insisted he become. And when the public reacted with revulsion, he figured he needed to keep carving. I don’t think we’ve seen a more accurate, living metaphor for the sickness of American popular culture.
Maybe self-mutilation is the inevitable finale of the celebrity cycle. The sit-com star, grotesquely famous for little reason, reduced to public humiliation in the form of a reality show or Oprah confessional, all to avoid the fate of those Atari cartridges and Tiffany cassingles lining the landfills. For Michael Jackson, identity and celebrity were one in the same, and he destroyed one trying to preserve the other. There was no “normal” life he could return to. No one could bring him down to earth because there was no earth. There was only Neverland, with its servants and sycophants, never contradicting his requests for another nose, another shot, another boy in the bedroom. Michael Jackson was as ultra-human as his video image, kept alive by the sheer force of the public gaze. There could be no second career as a record mogul, producer or Center Square. The self-made messiah must have his self-made crucifixion. And the gospel goes gold.