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Deconstructing Michael Jackson

posted by Paul on 2/25/03

It shouldn't have happened...

There was a time when the very mention "Michael Jackson" conjured up images of a phenomenally successful and talented pop singer. That notion seems galaxies removed from Jackson's present public persona: a ghoulish man-child with an unhealthy obsession with children. Opinions continue to be divided on Jackson, but it's unlikely he'll ever scale the heights of old. Chances are, "Michael Jackson" is the punchline of some lurid joke about pedophilia or a snide putdown. That wasn't always the case. Granted, the former child star and clear standout of The Jackson Five had long been considered something of an oddity. And to be fair, his behavior at times hasn't exactly conjured up images of normalcy. His high-pitched voice, unusual bashfulness and general reclusiveness had led millions to speculate what really drove Jackson. Moreover, how come such a dazzlingly unique public figure lacked a distinct identity? Why couldn't he be easily characterized?

Was he straight? Was he gay? Why did he live with a chimp called Bubbles?

It's vital not to lose sight of how he got here. Jackson was, by and large, the star of the 1980s. He ushered in a whole new era of Pop and moonwalked his way into notoriety. His blend of catchy tracks and innovative dance moves was ahead of its time - so much so, that "Little Michael" Justin Timberlake has more or less leeched Jackson's old gimmick at least fifteen years after it first did the rounds. Jackson was the product of a tough childhood and rigid parenting. He was taught from an early age that hard work paid dividends. His hard work catapulted him to worldwide fame and made him a millionaire many times over. Jackson earned the moniker "King of Pop" when plaudits weren't just handed out to the record industry's next corporate robot.

Jackson's pop survived all the fads and revivals. The new romantics and soft rock were dwarfed by his success. Quite simply, he stood head and shoulders above every pop act. Like Elvis, he was the KING. Not a puppet, not another derivative Karaoke singer and certainly not one-dimensional. His sales for Thriller (1982), an album that enjoyed a fabulous thirty-seven weeks atop the Billboard charts, topped twenty-five million. Twenty-five million! This was at a time when MTV wasn't so much the product-driven conglomerate we know today. This was at a time when music was thriving and album sales weren't artificially spiked by nervous record execs. Jackson, to be fair, did help usher in the age of commodity. He attached himself to Pepsi and endorsed various charities on national television and in his music. For sure, his image earned him a fortune. But, in fairness, he has used that money to aid numerous charities and build a Neverland theme park for young, disadvantaged children. Yet the question lingers: Altruism or self-promotion?

It would be intensely difficult for any artist to repeat Jackson's success . It's lazy to simply pass Jackson off as "wildly successful" or a "megastar" or whatever inept tabloid-esque terminology seems to fit. The fact is, Michael Jackson the performer evoked mass hysteria. His music videos, which were more like mini-movies, were lavishly produced and featured the bulk of Hollywood's A list in cameo roles. They premiered on primetime tv as standalone broadcasts. Can you imagine that? A pop singer's music video being scheduled as a prime-time ratings winner? His video premieres alone preempted popular shows, sometimes playing during extended commercials. Subsequent artists, such as Britney Spears and Eminem, have enjoyed tremendous success and critical acclaim but it's unlikely they would endure for more than ten years. Certainly, it's unlikely their music videos would essentially bring the pop world to a standstill. In Eminem's case, you have an "average guy" persona shielding exceptional musical talent. In Jackson's case, neither his detractors nor his die-hards could possibly describe him as "average".

Before Pepsi set him on fire...

To many fans, he was a god. To many fans, he still is. To his many detractors, though, Michael Jackson is a deranged monster. Although he still provokes controversy and continues to grab front-page headlines, it's difficult to parlay how spectacular his image was. No-one before or since has imbued quite the same appeal. Jackson's mystery has undoubtedly hurt his image whilst boosting his record sales. It's hard to know what side of the fence he sits. He has consistently shunned the talk show circuit, a vacuous and cynical plugfest where celebrities whore their images to hawk more sales. By and large, Jackson has allowed his music to do the talking. Whether it's your "thing" or not, Jackson the artist had a style that he made his own. His best hits are memorable and enduring. Most of them stand up over time. Quality always endures. Listening to Jackson's music is like watching an old classic. You've heard it before but you can't fault the sheer brilliance.

Since no-one can offer up a paragraph description of Jackson's personality, his persona is something of a riddle. He has been plagued by contradictions. He is either wildly perverse or hopelessly misunderstood. His celebrity friends (Elizabeth Taylor and Macaulay Culkin) describe him as child-like, generous and naive. His critics claim he is a calculated freakshow who knows how to manipulate the media and children. A former friend, Paul McCartney, has listed Jackson as a very shrewd businessman, a trait that sits uneasily with Jackson's self-image of an overgrown child. Jackson was and is an enigma wrapped inside an ever-whitening shell of strangeness. His lifestyle has always been what many would consider "unorthodox". After all, the guy lived in seclusion, invited children to his ranch and his public outings were usually marred by bizarre exhibitions. Jackson was either mobbed by hyperventilating fans or would appear with a surgical mask covering his face. Of course, this is "strange" because it is not "normal". And by not "normal", we are to infer that it is not "typical". Most people don't leave the house wearing surgical masks and white gloves. However, when you consider that Jackson is germ-phobic and not "most people", the behavior isn't too out of line.

Celebrities usually do eccentric things because they're usually eccentric people. Show me a celebrity who isn't strange and I'll show you one who hasn't lived under the same claustrophobic conditions as Michael Jackson. At best, celebrities are insecure people trapped in a vacuum of artifice. At worst, they're jerks who use their success to justify their megalomania. This is where Jackson is something of a mystery. Although his public appearances show him to be a smiling yet bashful presence, his outlandish actions have basically made him easy fodder for the media. If you're considered something of a risky father, it's probably not a good idea to dangle your young child over a hotel balcony. If you're considered an oddball, best leave the surgical mask at home. But then, Michael Jackson has continued to defy convention. Indeed, he has justifiably defended his actions in his recent documentary. Michael Jackson may be strange but the media have made a mint in portraying him that way. There's really no interest in portraying Jackson as a loving father or a good man. It's unlikely that if any other celebrity had showed their child to an adoring crowd, it would have met with the same outrage or front page protests about inadequate parenting. It's also likely that Jackson's defence that he wore the masks in order to protect his face would have been accepted had any other person used it.

Can you imagine living under such intense public scrutiny that your every move will be monitored and rounded off with scathing diatribes in the tabloids? Michael Jackson seems a very unhappy person, his sadness only alleviated somewhat by bringing joy to underprivileged children. It's impossible to know whether Jackson's actions are consistently misconstrued or, if you take a more cynical view, he deliberately sets out to get attention. The cynic in me wonders whether Jackson really considered the reaction his baby-dangling in Berlin might evoke. Surely, he couldn't be so naive. Or could he? Maybe he steadfastly refuses to live a restricted life, one that makes him so afraid to do anything in public. The controversial documentary "Living with Michael Jackson" showed Jackson as a very uneasy man, a man who doesn't want to grow up and who fills his life with expensive purchases and young children.

On the surface, there is a definite tragedy to Jackson's life. His childhood was a lonely one and his father was admittedly very strict. Jackson talks candidly and with great pain of being whipped and of being physically and verbally abused by his father. He blames this abuse (appropriate or not) for his subsequent preoccupation with kids. Only the biggest pessimist would refuse to believe that Jackson didn't enjoy his youth. Surrounded by hangers-on, denied freedom and awkward, Jackson was an isolated young man. Sure, his parents will deny the charges. They'll point to the other kids who grew up "happy". But even if the others were fine, that doesn't diminish Jackson's private torment. He was the youngest, the most talented and the star of the troupe. Naturally, Joseph Jackson will deny his son's charges because no-one likes to feel like a bad parent and guilt is easier to subdue than to face. Yet it would be hard to say that Jackson's other famous siblings, Latoya and Janet, are what you'd call "well-adjusted". Make of that what you will.

What really hurt Jackson was the child molestation charges levelled against him. You get the impression that he can't even face the thought of such allegations. If he did commit the crime, then God forgive him. If he didn't, then God forgive the naysayers for failing to comply with "the innocent before proven guilty" immunity. Again, it's hard to know whether Jackson really did commit the alleged crimes. With so much hush-hushing, red tape and secrecy payoffs we'll never really know - at least for a while. The allegations are certainly very vivid. If they were cooked up, they definitely weren't half-assed. And if they are genuine, then Michael Jackson should have been imprisoned. Whether or not he is a pedophile, the 1993 lawsuit certainly placed Jackson in a dim public light. It forever changed the perception of him as a misunderstood genius. That is, the vast majority of people instantly jumped on the anti-Jackson bandwagon. He was the butt of every late night talk show quip. He categorically denied the charges and, unlike O.J, there were more people willing to defend him than not.

There's probably no worse charge than being accused of child abuse. Such innuendo has essentially poisoned the Catholic church. The problem is, the accusation alone is enough to ruin lives. Do you really think people will view Pete Townshend as they did prior his child porn charges? Even if he gets off is acquitted, he'll have to wear the scarlet letter of suspicion for the rest of his life. He'll always be the "guy who was into kiddie porn". Similarly, Jackson has continued to arouse uproar by the allegation alone. Remember, he has been investigated and has not been charged nor arrested for molestation. Faulty justice system? Perhaps. But perhaps Jackson is so genuinely, so purely in awe of children.

I believe in "innocent before proven guilty". I believe that Jackson isn't guilty. I believe that it's important to keep an open mind. If you fail to keep an open mind, you might as well be a sheep believing everything you're told. What we know is that Jackson has been betrayed in the past. People who have spoke about living at Neverland did so for the lure of the dollar. Money will do odd things to someone's morality. Yeah, what they were saying might be true, but I'm inclined to believe that anyone who's willing to sell strories for an easy buck isn't exactly stone-cold dependable. You think there would have been interest in "Michael Jackson is a great guy" stories? There are more than enough of those. Typically, they are dismissed as spins, implying that the only positive opinion on Jackson would come from his payroll.

Journalists earn their livelihoods in scandal. And, let's be honest, it's way more interesting. However, there's no journalistic integrity in this sort of "scoop". The same rags that were claiming Jackson slept in an oxygen tank and wanted to buy the Elephant Man's bones were the same people who claim Elvis was spotted working in a Chinese restaurant. Uh-huh. You want to make a lot of money and ruin someone's career? Tell the Star that John Travolta (feel free to insert your own celeb) molested your eight year old daughter. There may be no truth in it, but you're going to be about $1 million better off - $10 million if you count the settlement payoff because he doesn't need any more aggravation! That, of course, is just a theory. It is easy to accuse and earth-shattering to be the accused (ten-fold if you're completely innocent). Maybe Jackson has never done anything wrong. Maybe he is a good person who loves kids and wants to make dreams come true. Maybe he is, as he terms himself, a type of "Peter Pan" without the ridiculous green pyjamas.

Like he says, it is the adults who destroy the world, who cause war and who have perpetrated atrocities. It is the adults who blow up buildings, who destroy families and who neglect children. Children are the purest, most innocent beings we have. It's just that the world has become a very sick, twisted world. It's a world where sickos can download disgusting images of abuse on their computers. It's a world where we have become desensitized and bleak. We treat those who love children with suspicion. Jackson's revelation that he shares a bed with children was met with disgust and calls for his head. Let's say it's proven that Jackson has never laid a white glove on any child. Would it still be inappropriate for him to share a bed with kids? This is where you have to hold up a mirror and ask...why? Is it because he's a guy? Is it because we've all grown to expect the very worst? We can't even trust priests any more. Anyone with genitals who happens to look sideways at a child is immediately suspected of being "a bit strange". On the flip side, I'd wager that if Michael Jackson was a woman he'd have won the Nobel Peace Prize by now. Hell, if he'd been a woman, he wouldn't have been accused of kiddie fiddling. Basically, everyone is holding him up to the worst possible standards. It's wrong, it's unnatural, it's vile! But if Jackson, an apparently vulnerable man is truly innocent, why can't people accept that he might actually want to do some good?

All those drug-taking, neglectful celeb parents who pop out kids just for the Ok! mag photo shoot are so much more responsible than Jackson? The documentary showed him as loving, if unconventional, father. How dare anyone lambast another individual's parenting when all they see are glimpses in newspapers and a well-edited TV special. Neither medium offers an apt gauge into Jackson's ability as a father. I do think Jackson has a tendency to manipulate the media and to construct events. He has been caught in more than a few mistruths (or, to be more PC, "twistings of the truth"). For one thing, I find it difficult to believe he hasn't had numerous appointments with the surgeon's knife. It just seems unusual that someone would seemingly change ethnicity, head shape and facial features all because of a rare condition called Vitiligo. Maybe I'm being too skeptical here. But there have been many, many times when he has been misrepresented. The media have their own agenda, and they tailor the news to suit their motives.

Ultimately, it's a very sad and oft-repeated story. Jackson, a precocious talent and one of the most iconoclastic musicians of all time, will be remembered as an oddball. He was a kid born into celebrity who was built up and torn down by that very position. Turmoil doesn't stray too far from genius. Post-humously, Jackson will be remembered exactly how he wants to be perceived. In his music, he urges us to "heal the world, make it a better place". The very people he urged helped destroy his legacy. Or maybe there is real darkness behind this shrouded figure. Maybe there's even more skeletons in the Jackson closet. What's clear though, as Jackson dips further into exile and obvious weakened appearance, that after all his success, all his potential and all his talent:

It shouldn't have happened...


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