Thursday, June 25, 2009

Another Icon Passes Over Before Us...

Perhaps none of us saw this coming: the final end of a long, downward slide down a slippery slope from super-stardom to tabloid-splattered scandal straight to infinity.

This wasn't some shticky, cynical attempt for attention by a media whore. This was a cry for help that may have fallen on deaf ears. There were no big bangs, no megaton explosions, not even the ripple effect from radioactive fallout. Only a chorus of loud lamentations and whimpers after the fact.

Michael Jackson, the iconic King of Pop, died from apparent cardiac arrest at the age of 50, which may have been exacerbated due to possible abuse of prescription drugs, including antidepressants, prescription painkillers, and all other matter of pharmaceutals open to tabloid speculation.

He was born in 1958 into an extremely dysfunctional blue-collar family in Gary, Indiana. His father. who toiled in the steel mills to provide for his family, was abusive towards his children, and Michael often borne the brunt of his father's ire, particularly when he didn't meet his demanding standards.

However, as Earl Ofari Hutchinson notes in the Huffington Post, the rationale behind Papa Joe's abusive behavior was his drive to whip his sons into shape as a performing act and to get his sons into show business, which in turn would provide a ticket out of the ghetto once and for all.

Photo credit: Frank Barratt/Getty Images

The Jackson 5 were signed by Motown Records in the late 1960's -- discovered not by Diana Ross, but by Gladys Knight and Bobby Taylor, who kept recommending them to Berry Gordy, who in turn finally signed them once he saw their potential viability as a recording act.

Though they scored big on the pop charts in the early 1970's and spawned a raft of imitative acts: The Osmonds, the DeFranco Family, even 1990's boy bands like New Kids on the Block, N'SYNC and the Backstreet Boys.

Though his brothers Jermaine and Jackie would prove to be fine singers in their own right, Michael was much more than the group's intangible element; he was the focal point of the act, performing like a diminutive microcosm of James Brown. Michael would also enjoy a side career as a solo performer ("Got To Be There," "Ben," the underrated "I Wanna Be Where You Are"). But his appeal also was that he gave voice to adolescents experiencing very adult emotions. And when you hear him singing "Never Can Say Goodbye," "Maybe Tomorrow," or "I'll Be There," he was delivering a message his peers could relate to.

Michael was also enjoying success as a solo artist ("Got To Be There," "I Wanna Be Where You Are"). So when Berry Gordy wanted to break Michael off from the group and have him go solo, Papa Joe vetoed the idea, more out of family solidarity than commercial considerations.

Photo credit: Motown Records

By the mid-Seventies, Michael and the other Jacksons (sans Jermaine, who stayed with Motown in part because he wedded Berry's daughter Hazel Joy), they pulled their stakes and signed with Epic records. Papa Joe masterminded this because his sons were being stifled, both creatively and financially.

After a pair of abortive false starts, the Jacksons finally found their voices, and began to hit their commercial stride once again in 1979 with the single Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground).

But that did not prepare the public for the phenomenal pop success Michael would enjoy in the 1980's with a string of powerhouse albums: Off the Wall, Thriller, Bad, andDangerous.

Credit: Associated Press

But with that success came controversy surrounding his eccentric public behavior and the tabloid-fueled stories that fed on frenzy, which led him to to be tagged with the moniker "Wacko Jacko." It was not just the incessant self-mutilation through cosmetic surgery and skin bleaching to alter his features. Nor was it his abortive marriage to Lisa Marie Presley and his subsequent fathering of three children via unorthodox (if that's the word) means. It was also his Neverland ranch, where he tried to create some childhood fantasia to fuel his fantasies. And with it came the stories of inappropriate behavior around children, bordering on outright pedophilia. This would culminate in one of the most sensational celebrity trials in recent memory.

I only saw Jackson perform in person just once: during a 2003 segment during the television taping of a American Bandstand anniversary reunion show at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium. Jackson's perfectionism was in force, as he performed his number a second time, feeling the performance could have been much better than it was. Still, reading into his performance, it seemed to be Michael feeling more comfortable in the company of his male dancers than the woman who came out to tempt him on stage.

I also took part working as a background extra during E! Entertainment's re-enactment of the Michael Jackson molestation trials. Since television cameras were not allowed inside the courtroom, they re-enacted the courtroom proceedings based on the transcripts that were sent via fax from the Santa Barbara county courthouse.

Moreover, I was hardly predisposed to cut Jackson any slack. Media-whoring celebrities like Jackson who get caught in flagante delicto and run afoul of the law inspired not only schadenfreude, but also a perverse form of sympathy.

But something strange happened during his molestation trial. Yes, he acted weird, but at the same time he was all too human. He knew he was headed for trouble, and he had no idea of how it was going to end up. It wasn't premeditated. It wasn't scripted. It simply unfolded organically, like any good story does. In the end, the prosecution fell on its own sword and Jackson was acquitted. As one juror succinctly noted in the aftermath, "What you had was Captain Ahab going after Moby Dick."

Men are not particularly known for their psychological introspection. It's painfully clear that Jackson was living in an autistic-like alternate reality. He clearly had no moral compass to show him right from wrong. No man in his right mind would allow young boys to share his bed with him during overnight sleepovers. Jackson's pattern of behavior was something that clearly cried out for some form of psychological explanation.

Credit: Reuters (l)

I'm neither defending nor condemning Jackson -- such judgments, from both outsiders and from within the entertainment industry, are meaningless. Whatever we presumably knew about Jackson came from the news media and the tabloids. His behavioral quirks and other eccentricities may have overshadowed his immense musical gifts. However Jackson's legacy is judged will happen, and it won't necessarily be pretty. He knew the rules of the game, he broke them repeatedly. And now, karma finally has caught up with him, and he has paid for that dearly with his own life.

Looking at pictures and videos of Michael during his final weeks, he resembled more and more like a white dwarf -- that shriveled-up remnant of a red giant that exploded into a supernova, unleashing all its energy and power throughout the universe before atrophying into that final state. Cosmetologists do have a way of making the dead look beautiful, but once you strip the corpse of its cosmetology, that banality of death still exists.

Still, the news of his sudden yet tragic death was about something much deeper than sex, or race, or even the celebrity culture. It was awful, but for his fans, it was painfully real and traumatic at its core. And painful as it is, in our repressed American racial, sexual and cultural landscapes, the real enemy in this case is not race, or gender, or the celebrity culture, or one's sexual proclivities, or even authenticity. The real enemies are artifice and plastic.

Just as the 1982 film Britannia Hospital used a public hospital as a metaphor for the societal decay in Great Britain, the Neverland ranch – its name derived from the land Peter Pan lived because he refused to grow up -- stands as a symbolic metaphor for the childhood that was denied him, as well as the fantastical, hermetically-sealed fugue state that would later become Michael Jackson’s life.

It is indeed a sad commentary in itself that Michael trumped Neda, Farrah Fawcett and Mike Sanford in our media consciousness. This speaks volumes about how celebrities are deified and worshiped in ways they shouldn't be. And it also speaks volumes about how we prioritize our own concerns, and where those real concerns should lie.

And while the world mourns Michael's untimely death, there are still Iranians experiencing brutal repression at the hands of a theocratic regime bent on striking terror into the hearts and minds of their citizens, as well as the impending threat of North Korea joining the nuclear club.

Now don't we have more pressing issues to contend with?

In the meantime, rest peacefully, Michael. The Lord God will understand and say, "Well done."

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