Friday, July 10, 2009

On Michael Jackson, Pop Idolatry and Conspiracy Theories

Pop idolatry, to the extreme, the kind of Cult of Personality worship that blinds supplicants: It's hardly a new phenomenon. But it's happening all over again with the death of Michael Jackson.

Jackson, by every measure (including that of a former full-time pop critic - me) was one of the most talented and successful entertainers of the 20th Century. He was an unusually gifted singer, a songwriter able to effortlessly fuse pop, rock & R&B in a way that felt positively inspiring, and uniquely post-racial, and he was the most innovative dancer since Fred Astaire. It's difficult to overstate the depth and breadth of Jackson's talents.

He had a voice that connected with people on all sorts of emotional levels. And he single-handedly broke the color barrier on MTV, forcing the formerly lily-white network to open its doors to African-American acts. Don't forget that MTV, at the time, was a huge influence on popular music and popular culture. So that achievement, in addition to many others, including releasing Thriller, the biggest-selling album in history, was ginormous.

Michael Jackson -- aptly called Wacko Jacko in the Brit press -- was tremendously flawed, to say the least. Plenty of pop culture figures are quirky or offbeat, and that's part of why we have loved them.

Some, though, have ventured into criminality, of the kind that most definitely caused personal harm to the people closest to them. The late, great -- yes, great -- writer Norman Mailer stabbed his second wife, Adele, almost killing her. She declined to press charges, and he received a suspended sentence on a reduced conviction of assault. The great pop producer Phil Spector was convicted of second-degree murder in the shooting death of actress Lana Clarkson. The noted filmmaker Roman Polanski pled guilty to unlawful sex with a minor, who was 13 years old and allegedly was plied with alcohol and quaaludes. Woody Allen carried on a relationship with an adopted child, later marrying her. The late, great trumpeter, composer and bandleader Miles Davis admitted to physically abusing Cicely Tyson, when she was married to him.

Many of the above abused alcohol or other substances. Most would say that they were not role models, that they didn't lead personal lives particularly deserving of emulation. Similar things could be said, and have been said, about Elvis Presley and John Lennon.

Does that invalidate the importance or impact or quality of their work? Does it mean that they didn't create significant and inspiring music and literature and movies that have become deeply meaningful to millions of people around the world?

In my opinion, no. There's the art, and then there's the artist. Endorsing one doesn't mean that you have to approve the other.

At the same time, our appreciation of their work ought not blind us to the reality of their deep flaws.

And yet, that's precisely what is happening with Michael Jackson.

By his own admission, in a widely aired television interview, he enjoyed sleeping with young boys, kids who weren't his own children. Can anyone really, with a straight face, say that this isn't disturbing behavior?

Jackson, who made hundreds of millions from his recordings, and reportedly died $400 million in debt, spent $24 million of his earnings on out-of-court settlements with parents of kids who accused the pop star of pedophilia.

Yes, Jackson was acquitted of molestation charges. But that $24 million payout doesn't pass the smell test, does it? Do you know of any parent who would have left their children alone with Jackson? Just as innocent people have been wrongly convicted of crimes, guilty people have been wrongly acquitted of crimes. Think of Mafia leaders who avoided punishment for their crimes. Think of O.J.

Jackson, according to the latest reports, most likely died of an overdose of illegally obtained drugs, the kind that you can't get unless you're in a hospital - or you have so much wealth that you can buy anything.

Sadly, though, some folks are so blinded by the glories of Jackson's work that they can't, or won't, accept the sordid facts of Jackson's personal life.

It's even worse: Some people, as I've observed in online discussions about Michael Jackson, grow absolutely livid when others dare to mention the dark side of Jackson's life and legacy.

In one such exchange, on Facebook, an otherwise sensible fellow - a jazz-radio programmer, no less -- referred to another FB member as a "hater." Why? The wrongly accused Facebook member (yes, me) had taken issue with the words of Al Sharpton, regarded by some as a world-class opportunist. Sharpton, at the MJ memorial, referring to Jackson, said "There wasn't nothing strange about your daddy."

Come again? The reality is that Jackson was patently strange. At the very least.

Even more disturbing, some of the folks most blinded by pop idolatry regarding Jackson have suggested that anyone who says anything negative about the self-named King of Pop is not only a "hater" but is, uh, you know, racist. That's a strong word, too casually and too often tossed around.

And, even weirder, there's a line of thinking out there that there was a "white" conspiracy against Jackson.

All of this is inherently wrongheaded, particularly to anyone who considers that MJ did everything in his power to deny his own racial identity and heritage, including whitening his skin and having multiple surgeries on his face to eliminate African-American features.

The troubles Jackson faced, as St. Pete Times columnist Dan Ruth noted in a recent column, were largely of his own making.

He could have sought help for his apparent sexual dysfunctions. He could have sought help for his apparent chemical addictions. He could have worked on developing, you know, healthy relationships with adults. He didn't have to spend untold millions on a wonderland trying to recreate the childhood he apparently felt he never experienced. He didn't have to obsess over the idea of releasing an album that was as large a commercial juggernaut as Thriller. That's not even to mention the anti-Semitic outburst he made several years ago, in a conversation recorded and later played on "Good Morning America," and the anti-Semitic epithets he used in the song "They Don't Care About Us," from 1995's HIStory album.

What's more, how many of those grabbing the limelight in that memorial celebration, and others making accusations of "racism," spent time and energy trying to help Jackson with his "issues"?

So now we've experienced another death of a major pop star, one PERHAPS as big and as important as the Beatles or Elvis Presley or Frank Sinatra (although I'm not at all convinced that MJ songs will have the longevity of many other pop artists).

Jackson's death is a major, tragic loss. I'm sad that he won't have a chance to stage a comeback and, just perhaps, give us more great pop singles or video productions.

But maybe, in addition to honoring his work as a supremely gifted artist, we can all learn a thing or two about the dangerous insularity of pop stardom, and the traps of pop idolatry?

Aren't we sophisticated enough to accept the reality that MJ was simultaneously a legendary entertainer and a guy with a wrecked, maybe criminal personal life?

That seems a lot more productive than launching personal attacks on those who won't go along with the idea that Michael Jackson was a saint, or, even worse, injecting the meaning of his death with wild-eyed, racially based conspiracy theories.


Anonymous said...

What if when you or I die, someone were to dissect our lives? I think 90% of us would have embarrassing flaws. I’m just as hooked on this story as the rest of America (and perhaps the world) but I feel sick to my stomach at the way WE (fellow human beings) speak about a MAN who has lost his life. Drug addiction is so incredibly sad. It robs good people of their souls. How many good friends or loved ones do YOU know who are addicts. The people who say negative things simply DO NOT UNDERSTAND ADDICTION!

Philip Booth said...

"Embarrassing flaws" are one thing. Physically attacking other people, or fiddling around with little kids, fall into a completely different category, IMO.

You're absolutely right about addiction - it's insidious and destructive. But people are still responsible for their actions.