St. Michael of Neverland Ranch

michael-jackson_47719987I just won’t turn on a television for a week now that we’ve learned that Michael Jackson has died.  I’m not sure I can stomach the insta-documentaries and the faux-mourning.  Indeed, not to be too horribly cynical, but I’m quite sure that all those who spoke ill of Jackson in the past, including all the media outlets and anchors will leap headlong onto the Saint Michael bandwagon now that he’s departed.

I’ve always thought Jackson’s story was a sad one.  He obviously had many, many mental issues.  I was never a fan of his music, but I was always sad that anyone could be so uncomfortable in their own skin.

But beyond that, I think he was a deeply troubled person who – regardless of the fact that he was never charged convicted of any crime – I would certainly not want my daughter around.  That parents let him sleep in the same bed as their children is beyond disturbing.  The whole story, from childhood to manhood, of Michael Jackson has been strange and sad and frightening.  All that wealth, and what came of it but a slow descent, both mentally and physically, into something less than human?

He was the artificial man, plasticized and dehumanized in a bizarre attempt to become forever childlike.   And the press loved it.  And somehow he was able to continue hosting children at his ranch, throwing elaborate sleepover parties.  He’s been ridiculed for decades, by the same people who will now sing his praises.

Watch as the pop-beatification process begins.  I don’t mean to sound unsympathetic.  I just haven’t had a change of heart now that he’s dead.  I don’t know if he was guilty or not, but my gut, for what it’s worth, certainly tells me that he was.  That’s not fair, I know, but I can’t help it.  And beyond that, I’m also pretty certain he was a miserable person, whose sadness had withered him from within.

In some cases death is a mercy.

Apparently Jonah Goldberg feels the same:

Every cable network (including Fox, for the record) used the word “icon” to describe him as if this was some sort of safe harbor, a word everyone could agree on. “Love him or hate him,” the implied logic went, “he was an ‘icon.’”

Yes, well, maybe so. But that doesn’t let you off the hook. Even though the term sounds neutral, it isn’t. An icon, technically speaking, is a religious symbol deserving of reverence and adoration. The networks may not have intended to use the word that way, but they certainly showed an unseemly amount of reverence and adoration for the man.

I think part of it is the narcissism of our celebrity culture. Here was a guy so many of “us” read about in People magazine for so long. His passing, therefore, isn’t a loss in the sorrowful sense of the word, but in the selfish one. It’s a loss of an interesting subject, a creature to gossip about and to fill a few minutes on E! or Entertainment Tonight….

Calling Michael Jackson an icon doesn’t let him off the hook for anything. But to listen to the news anchors you’d think it absolves him of everything. I say: Who cares who his famous friends were? Who cares what a “fascinating” person he was? If you want to talk about his death as an end of an era, have at it. But that’s not what the Barbara Walters set is doing.

I know that Michael Jackson wasn’t convicted of the despicable crimes he was accused of. And that’s why he never went to jail. Three cheers for the majesty of the American legal system. But in my own personal view, he wasn’t exonerated either. Nor was he absolved of his crimes because he could sing, moonwalk, or sell 10 million records. (Though many of us suspect the money and fame he made from those things is precisely what kept him out of jail).

And, while I merely think he was a pedophile, I know he was not someone responsible parents should applaud, healthy children emulate, nor society celebrate.

And while we’re at it, his relatively early death wasn’t “tragic.” He was one of the richest people in the world. He spent his money on perpetual childhood and he was perpetually with children not his own….

If anything, Michael Jackson’s life, not his death, was tragic.

Indeed.

Andrew has a short round-up here.

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33 thoughts on “St. Michael of Neverland Ranch

  1. On the way to work today, the music station was talking about Michael Jackson. Fair enough, I switched to the rock station. They were talking about him. Okay. Fair enough. I switched to NPR. Sweet, sweet NPR.

    They were talking about him.

    I’m tempted to listen to Limbaugh (or Beck!!!) today to see if they will be talking about him too.

    It strikes me that this is a fairly big deal for pop culture. One of pop culture’s most recognizable faces (no pun intended) is gone. This is someone whose music is in everyone’s house and someone about whom any two strangers could converse. As pop culture kinda things go, this is an earthquake.

    I’m enough of a pretentious bastard to think that NPR (of all places!!! THESE ARE MY TAX DOLLARS!!!) would have better things to talk about during Morning Edition than pop culture.

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  2. While I also think many of the allegations against Jackson were true, it’s much more complex than that. I believe he really, genuinely had no understanding of the nature of the crime, or that his alleged actions were criminal. I think he just didn’t “get it.” If you watch his interviews on the subject (e.g., with Martin Bashir), when he’s asked directly, “did you molest that child?,” he responds over an over again, “I would never hurt a child. I love children.” And I think, in his own mental pathology, that’s right, that’s truthful. He wasn’t dodging the question; he simply didn’t understand it as the rest of us do. He was a child himself in that part of his mind, and I don’t think he ever understood his actions as abusive, or even very inappropriate. That doesn’t excuse the behavior, but I do thinks it’s of a piece with the rest of his psyche. Unfortunately, his wealth and fame — and the sycophantic entourage of enablers that came with it — allowed him to live in his own Neverland (figuratively and literally) where he had free rein to indulge his twelve-year-old psyche.

    Jackson’s personal life reminds me of Louis XIV of France, who allegedly required members of his court to bow to the trays of food being carried into his dining chamber. Who’s the crazy one there — the king, or all the people around him who cheerfully play along?

    I don’t often quote Al Sharpton, but his comments last night on MSNBC (from memory) were dead-on: “there are people singing Michael’s praises right now, who five hours ago wouldn’t be seen anywhere near him.”

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  3. I think a lot of the responses are just too easy. The media rush to saint him, his critics just keep on hammering away at his (alleged) crimes. As always with these things, everyone gets to have exactly the response they want to have.

    I think Andrew’s nuanced, gentle, here-and-there take is also the sort of response that is *exactly* how Andrew would like to respond to almost everything, but I also think it’s the most fair. I also think Ta-Nehisi’s reminder that artists and their art are not the same thing is as valuable as it is every time we hit one of these cultural flashpoints.

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  4. I don’t know. First, this is hardly a purely American phenomenon – the wall to wall coverage seems to be pretty global, which makes sense when you consider that for the last 15-20 years, he’s been a bigger deal abroad than here. See, e.g., the BBC’s main homepage. Frankly, the US coverage that I’ve seen has been trying to find a balance between mourning the passing of a cultural giant and maintaining a clear eye about his disturbing tendencies. True, this doesn’t really come up much during the interviews with so-called friends and associates of his, but I’m not sure that it should.

    I’m usually appalled at the amount of attention we pay to celebrity, and I think it’s unfortunate that the media is going to pay more attention to this than the situation in Iran, but I can’t say that I really blame them in this case. Even if you weren’t a fan of his music, you can’t deny the cultural impact of it; for me, Thriller gave me my first direct experience with pop culture, and I can remember all the kids in my class trying to moonwalk during recess. And if you don’t find yourself tapping your feet to ABC or I Want You Back when you hear them, then I’m not sure you’re alive.

    As TNC pointed out – without all that cultural impact, no one ever cares about his bizarre personal life. In fact, you probably don’t get the bizarre personal life at all. All of which is to say that you can’t talk about the dark side of Michael Jackson without first talking about the side that left its mark on our culture. He was certainly not a saint, but he’s also not someone who should be primarily remembered for his dark side.

    Kurt Cobain was a seriously f’d up individual, but what had more of an impact on our culture – his music, or the fact that he was a seriously f’d up individual? And isn’t this a good thing? Ditto Elvis, Jimi, Janis, Marvin, and I’m sure plenty of others. To be sure, Jackson’s dark side was perhaps far more dangerous than most of these, but then again, with the exception of Elvis, he was a much bigger cultural influence.

    One last reason the amount of coverage is perhaps justified – this is officially the moment when Gen X’ers start to feel old.

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    • Mark – fair enough. I haven’t watched the coverage like I said above – I don’t think I’ll turn a tv on, so I was self-consciously jumping the gun in my condemnation of the talk shows etc. I just get the feeling that a lot of people who were perfectly happy trash-talking him for years on end will now be just as happy to make him a saint. That just irks me. That’s all.

      And no fair bringing Kobain into this. Kobain was my adolescent musical hero, and while certainly a screw-up, was not nearly as weird or creepy as Jackson.

      I understand the cultural impact these guys have on us, with their music and personas. That’s fine. And yes, the media should cover the death of someone this “big.” But I still feel irked by how we treat celebrities – we love to build them up until we decide we want to bring them down. There’s an “arena” mentality to it that is sort of frightening to me.

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      • I couldn’t agree with you more about this, in general. The only reason I turned on the news last night was because I had just heard a rumor about what happened as I was walking into a banquet. Plus, my wife didn’t hear the news until I told her the rumor. So when I got home, CNN and (unfortunately) FoxNews were the quickest sources for what happened. For once, I was pleasantly surprised by the coverage. That said, I’m not at all sure that the international media are taking nearly as nuanced an approach.

        I do wonder how different things would have played out had the media actually abided by his plea in his otherwise forgettable single “Just Leave Me Alone.”

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  5. I think this is exactly the sort of thing NPR should be discussing, providing they do so at an intelligent level. The sacrificial logic of fame, how the masses persecute and then deify their idols, would be an obvious starting point for such a discussion.

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    • Morning Edition, at least the part before I turned the radio off in disgust, was being a middle-brow Entertainment Tonight kinda thing.

      Which, I suppose, is a step up from the low-brow E! kinda thing.

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    • From John Cole at Balloon Juice:

      “James Joyner thinks the coverage of MJ’s death is over the top, and I completely agree. I will, however, note that while the MJ coverage is over the top, it still pales in comparison to the three day self-absorbed wankfest that followed Tim Russert’s death.”

      I think this is correct.

      Now John Lennon – that’s a different – he deserved every second of TVEE time he received after he was murdered.

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  6. I do kind of agree the coverage is disproportionate. Nytimes.com was running a full width headline or hours upon hours when they barely were moved to do so at all for Iran. (personal bias perhaps showing there, but still, any number of stories are clearly more important to people than this.)

    But whatev. I have to say E.D., I find this piece a bit uncharitable. The guy obviously did, ahem, touch huge numbers of people with his talent. My personal view is that Cobain’s was greater, but I think it is undeniable that this is the biggest pop-culture passing since Elvis. The main difference is in the declines. The King of Rock had a horrible one, but he kept making interesting music. Michael’s was more fully self-destructive, wherein he pretty much fully disappeared from the artistic scene. For that reason, his death had almost no emotional impact for me. He was almost already there — a hollow shell. But at the same time, that absence itself underscores the significance of the outpouring yesterday and this weekend. I’m not sure when you were born, but I think it’s possible you just don’t have a sense for the force that this guy was. That doesn’t make the celebrity-worship objectively any better from a moral-priority perspective, but I think it would help to put the reaction in context for you. You have to realize — Kurt went out at the apex of his arc. It shocked his followers. (I was a latecomer; I actually rejected the emotionalism at the time in a similar way you are doing now — for less good reason, as he didn’t touch children. I have come to see the error of my ways, relatively speaking.) But at the time of his death, as huge a star as he was, he was still a genre-specific (alt/grunge) phenomenon. It’s not an artistic defense, but Jackson simply dominated at a time when there weren’t very many outlets to pursue a different artistic sensibility in the pop realm. He was piped into people’s consciousness, and if you give him a second listen, I think you might begin to understand why, given the alternatives, people connected to him in a historic way (best-selling album of all time.)

    So this week, we see not a reflection of what the man was at the time of his death, but what he was fully to people the world over across the course of a lifetime, concentrated of course mainly in a few remarkable years 25 years ago! Is it any wonder that the reaction seems out of place now, in a cultural setting removed by a quarter century from his moment of dominance?

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