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Thursday 6 August 2009

Icon Series: Reflection on Michael Jackson Part 2: Fall, Death & Rise of an Icon

Michael Jackson, cropped from :Image:Michael J...Image via Wikipedia

Fall of the Mighty

My generation’s cynicism did not come overnight. First there was Mike Tyson’s conviction for rape. Then there would be the deaths of Brandon Lee and Kurt Cobain. These were our heroes and, of course, their deaths would be surrounded by mystery and supposed conspiracy as such untimely deaths to famous people are destined to be.

The weirdness of “Wacko Jacko” was taken to an irredeemably sinister level. It wasn’t long after Jackson had apparently set the record straight in his first “open” interview with Oprah Winfrey that the first child molestation charges were made. The interview had seemed like a pleasant epilogue to my following of Michael Jackson’s works. Okay, his songs seemed a little childish and superficial at the time when I was getting into apparent “music with meaning”, but at least I could smile and say they guy was just a misunderstood eccentric like many pioneers in history. I remember discussing the interview with my fellow school sixth formers and the consensus was that Jackson was a very sympathetic figure, a victim of the media and his own tough upbringing in showbusiness. Then Jordy Chandler child molestation accusations arrived! And it was like the God of Cynicism that presided over the ‘90s was saying “Not so fast Mr Jackson! You are not going to get away that easily!”

To make matters worse, Michael Jackson agreed on an out of court settlement to let the matter drop. In the eyes of many this was an admission of guilt. This is an understandable public reaction from many people who have never really experienced the full pressure of the media on their backs or the thought of a painful trial to handle. An out of court settlement might seem like “hush money” to some, but to those who have faced both the media and the legal system might have a little empathy for an individual who just saw an easy and quick way out. I know plenty of examples of people who have inadvisably settled for cautions, fines and out of court settlements for crimes – non-sexual I hasten to add – they haven’t committed in order to curtail legal proceedings. I have also seen people settle for virtually anything, guilty or not, to quieten down media interest. It is very easy to sit back in your armchair and be judgmental over situations you barely have third or fourth knowledge or experience of.

Of course, the Jordy Chandler case wouldn’t be the last time such accusations were to be made and the settlement arguably opened the door for future accusations, if we are to believe many Jackson’s supporters. The following decade Jackson would be charged by the state of California on “seven counts of child molestation and two counts of administering an intoxicating agent, in order to commit that felony”.

I may have moved on from the music of Michael Jackson at the time of the first accusations, but I always wanted to believe he was innocent. I acknowledge my influences and teachers with the respect they deserve and I was never embarrassed with being a Michael Jackson fan. And yet I didn’t know the guy or really anyone who was close to him. Why should I care whether he committed the crimes or not? The music and performance can be divorced from the man. Can’t it?

In-between the first and second set of allegations we watched and listened as celebrity paedophiles were shot down one by one. Gary Glitter was convicted more than once for increasingly worse crimes against minors and the campaign against him in the tabloid press continues to this day. I can happily say that I was never a Gary Glitter fan. He worked within my culture, the circus, for a very brief period alongside Gerry Cottle, who mentions him in his autobiography, “Confessions of a Showman”, but that is the only tenuous connection I can draw. Glitter’s music seemed arrogant and nonsensical to me during the time I discovered pop music, and by the time I retrospectively got into punk, glam rock was the anathema of my interests. However, to see him irredeemably fall was a shock to many.

Like Michael Jackson, Glitter, despite his three drink driving convictions in the 1980s, was a character that had become a family favourite. Then there was Jonathan King, once again I was no fan, but as with Glitter he just seemed to be a safe part of the institution. Now, according to the conclusions drawn from his guilty conviction by much of the tabloid press, he was revealed to be a prowling paedophile, enticing young boys into his limousine with promises of fortune in the music industry. Others, like The Who’s Pete Townsend, received a caution and a subsequent statutory five year inclusion on the Violent and Sex Offender Register. Townsend had been no saint during his guitar smashing days with The Who, but he had settled into a comfortable part of the establishment as he hit middle age and was an active campaigner for children’s charities. His conviction came about after he accessed a website that promoted child pornography. No evidence was found to secure a proper conviction and Townsend’s reasonable yet naïve defence was that he was researching material for a now abandoned book against child pornography. He had written an anti-child pornography article prior to the allegations.

Townsend’s career hasn’t really been tarnished. King is still a very strong self-promoter who has continued to produce a huge amount of work and keeps a positive face, but still gets little sympathy from the mainstream press. Glitter’s career seemed pretty much in tatters once he was found guilty for downloading child pornography. This original conviction was not nearly as severe as King’s, but he had some vital extra ingredients which were always going to work against him. Firstly despite the great diversity of King’s career, he was not quite as recognizable a figure as Glitter was and though comical to look at, he was not as eccentric. Secondly, Glitter was a has-been in the public eye and therefore completely safe to demolish. Mike Tyson had been found guilty of rape, but he had an army of defenders and fight fans that supported him throughout his prison term, upon his release and through his fights right up until his disastrous final bouts. This was all in spite of Tyson’s long criminal record and the fact he was accused and successfully sued on at least one occasion for sexual misconduct. Glitter did not have that kind of support or perhaps the British press were less tolerant. They hounded him wherever he went it seemed and eventually he was caught and convicted for several sexual crimes against underage girls in Vietnam. Glitter claimed to being entrapped and set up by the press, which is believable, but nevertheless hardly mitigated his crimes.

With these incidents all in mind (and the promise of more to come) it all seemed inevitable that Michael Jackson was going to be the biggest one of all to fall. This was it, the darker side of the American dream. After the album “HiStory”, Jackson’s career seemed to nose dive in the eyes of the general public. However, as pointed out by his younger sister, Janet, his final album, “Invincible”, was actually a financial success. It topped the billboard chart upon its release in the US and in 12 other countries. Nevertheless, the media mood of 2001 was not all welcoming for Michael Jackson. Aside from his previous allegations, he seemed to only appear in the press as part of some sort of weirdness or un-rock and roll-type controversy or other. The plastic surgery/skin disease problems also didn’t help his physical appearance and just further helped to propagate his general oddness. The sad thing about age is that you can all too easily become a parody of your former self.

It seemed like history was about to repeat itself. Martin Bashir’s documentary/interview served as a far less compassionate and more provocative sequel to Oprah Winfrey’s one that occurred 10 years previously. Winfrey had come across like a concerned parent who carefully asked questions like why do you grab your crotch on stage? Bashir, who had made his media breakthrough with his revealing interview with Princess Diana, seemed to be trying to get a rise out of Jackson. He certainly revealed the singer to be an eccentric – we already knew this – but he seemed to be trying to find this weirdness in everything he did. For example, I remember feeling sympathetic for Jackson when he demonstrated his love for climbing trees. Bashir just came across as a rather pompous stick-in-the-mud when he told Jackson that it wasn’t normal for a man in his 40s to climb trees, as if it were some sort of immature perversity.

Of course, the money shot for Bashir came with the issue of the children that stayed at Jackson’s Neverland Ranch. Most people had been okay with the general eccentricity he had displayed so far, but it became distinctly uncomfortable when the singer started admitting to allowing children to share his bed. Interestingly it was Jackson’s “man-child” innocence and lost childhood angle that protected him in the eyes of some. Others, however, were less believing. In one breath Jackson seemed to be harking back to a more innocent time when he said that there was no greater expression of platonic love than when you shared your bed with someone. In a time when the media has taught us sexualize everything, it is worth taking a step back and considering an age when non-sexual partners did share beds. However, this did not seem to exactly gel with Jackson then clearly asserting that he did not allow (or no longer allowed) children to share his bed.

Like Sister Aloysius in the play “Doubt: A Parable”, many felt that those who didn’t see him as a paedophile were trying to believe in whatever made them feel comfortable again. There may be a deal of truth in this. However, like the good sister these same cynics probably saw other corroborating evidence of Jackson’s guilt in his numerous eccentricities. It doesn’t stand up as a rational argument – more a “poisoning the well” or even a “slippery slope” logical fallacy – but in the minds of many, confirmed weirdness plus allegations of outright wrongness equals guilty. This, after all, is the nature of a witch-hunt.

Not having the facts and not being a close follower of everything that had been happening in the life of Michael Jackson, I didn’t side with the cynics or the all-forgiving acolytes. I just hoped that justice would be done and I hoped that no sexual offences had actually occurred. I didn’t want Michael Jackson to be a paedophile, but if evidence proved this fact without doubt, then this was something I would have to accept without mitigation. Aphrodite Jones’s book “The Michael Jackson Conspiracy” puts forward the idea that those who accused Jackson had agendas of their own. He argues using detailed descriptions of the court proceedings including apparent endless contradictions of prosecuting witness testimony and eye-rolling responses to the revelation of alleged “lies” put forward by the ’93 accusers. The title of the book is enough to make my own eyes roll, but it seems like a fairly strong case in principle. Showbusiness is certainly full of parasites, and celebrities are easy targets once you are inside the proverbial “circle of trust”, but equally there are plenty who abuse their own positions of influence.

Jackson’s huge debts and the immature way he threw money around on the Martin Bashir documentary seemed to back up this image of a child-like personality with little “street savvy” who could easily be taken advantage of. His various religious conversions first to being a Jehovah’s Witness, along with his mother, and then to Islam seemed to speak of a type of inner uncertainty. Apparently his bodyguards were from the Nation of Islam, a far more extreme and diverse version of mainstream Sunni or Shia Islam, but his funeral was Christian. And yet his professional career speaks of an independent man who broke away from his family and gradually took control of all his own projects. I would argue he was far more than “Qunicy Jones’s best instrument” as one British comic glibly quipped.

Death of an Icon

Like David Carradine who died the same year in fairly self-explanatory if rather sordid circumstances, Michael Jackson’s sudden unexpected death at 50 just before he intended to launch his final tour was pounced on almost immediately by the conspiracy theorists. These vary from the concerns of the family about suspicious circumstances connecting his doctor to outrageous Elvis-type claims about him faking his death. I am not going to go into the details, but just say that this was all tragically predictable. There are still documentaries and books to this day on “mystery” surrounding the deaths of James Dean, Bruce Lee, Marylin Monroe, Princess Diana, Elvis Presley and just about anyone who was very famous and didn’t live into old age.

It wasn’t long before Jackson’s estate state negotiating deals on documentaries that covered the singer’s final days. I predict plenty of nonsense thrown in with “exclusive footage and interviews” that will help muddy waters into the public’s perception of the inquest into his death. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the first one that seems to have surfaces, simply titled “Michael Jackson's Last Days: What Really Happened”. The documentary was presented by Michael Jackson fan and journalist, Jacques Peretti.

The documentary’s best interviewee was the advice of a true expert who provided the most plausible scenario for Jackson’s death given the evidence that has been provided. Dr Drew Pinsky is an expert in addictive medicines and has a lot of experience in dealing with celebrity drug addicts. Pinsky believes that Jackson, who had self-medicated with powerful painkillers since the horrendous injuries he sustained in a Pepsi commercial in 1984, killed himself accidentally. The only suspicious drug found in Jackson’s system was Diprivan, which Jackson might have used “off-label” as a “downer” to treat his insomnia. Pinsky gave Sid Vicious’s death as a case study comparison, although he dismissed the unsubstantiated claims that Jackson was also using illegal drugs like heroin. There would be no point, as this drug was not as effective as the prescribed ones Jackson was using. Pinsky’s interviews are interesting in that they give an insider look at the use of drugs by performers. For full details please listen to Pinsky’s interviews taken from the TV programme “Michael Jackson’s Last Days: What Really Happened”.

A Final Reflection

The whole media storm surrounding the death of Michael Jackson has created two opposing camps of thought. We saw a similar division occur during the sex allegations. There are those who are turning him into some sort of saint and those who bemoan the way the hype over him is taking over all the news.

Unfortunately despite Jackson’s incredibly impressive army of diehard fans, their legion have been temporarily joined by hypocrites who probably couldn’t recall a Michael Jackson beyond Thriller before his death. Suddenly it is cool to like Michael Jackson again, but somehow it leaves a very sour aftertaste.

However, it seems just as attractive to join the second camp. It has become just as fashionable to talk about the disproportionate amount of interest generated by Jackson’s death as it is to be one of the born-again fans. The obvious comparison is the huge stream of sentimentality that engulfed the UK when Princess Diana died. This whole incident was rather embarrassing in hindsight for many and many don’t want to see a repeat performance.

My feelings are this performance hasn’t been repeated – at least not in the UK. Sentimentality, as opposed to genuine sympathy and empathy, can be a dangerous thing. It herds and manipulates people through one of their most vulnerable emotions. I couldn’t agree more that the whole response to the death of Michael Jackson, a truly great and legendary performer, singer and innovator of our time, has bordered on hysterical and resulted into some rather sickly and sometimes disturbing scenes of commemoration. However, they haven’t truly crossed the line as I feel happened with Princess Diana.

It is only natural for a star, such as Michael Jackson, who was celebrated and supported for so long, to elicit the type of media and public response that his death has generated. Throughout history we have seen this happen again and again with icons. I agree that it does seem very unfair that his death continued to mug the headlines and news reports whilst the regular tragic deaths of soldiers in Afghanistan scurried past as secondary news items, but did we truly expect anything more? It is easy to say that Michael Jackson was just another human being, which of course he was, but it is very naïve to think that his death would not be met with the response we have seen. Like any icon, he made history and a lot of people invested a lot in him. When an icon dies – as irrational and melodramatic as it seems – many people feel like something of them has died too.

When President Kennedy died, many felt like it was the death of a dream. All his faults, both personal and political, were forgotten in favour of this feeling of youthful and fresh change that was set to lead America into a new age. Michael Jackson’s philanthropy was certainly considerable, but I don’t ever think this is what constituted his position as an icon. Jackson also represented youth; more so he represented childhood. The unsubtle and youthful songs he produced were typical of children’s fantasies, particularly those first teenage years.

On the other side of the coin I think it is good that there was a lot criticism surrounding the hype over Michael Jackson’s death. The same couldn’t be said about Princess Diana’s death. Not long before her death the satire came thick on the “People’s Princess” across the media. This included criticism surrounding Diana’s publicity-seeking filmed attendance of open heart surgery. No sooner had she died then no-one dared speak in any way that was critical of her. For more on this and the subject of sentimentality, which I will no doubt return to in future articles, please read BBC journalist and aggressive interviewer David Humphrys’ book, “Devil’s Advocate”.

Jackson lived his life in the spotlight. He loved it and loathed it. That much appears to be the pattern if we look at his work. He was no tortured musician who just wanted to create art and shunned publicity. Michael Jackson embraced his iconic status and tried to elevate it to god-like proportions. The evidence can be seen in his work from the self-indulgent Moonwalker onwards. Think of the giant dictator like statues and the militaristic image that went alongside them when he promoted the HiStory album. Think of the Jesus like stance he struck on stage surrounded by children as performed Earth Song – a scene that English singer, Jarvis Cocker, felt was so repugnant that he protested by jumping on stage and performing an impromptu routine of his own.

The theme of that particular song also demonstrates the “pop” nature of the kingly status his close friend Elizabeth Taylor bestowed on him. Earth Song was a rather literal affair regarding the environment and the terrible things man has done to cause these problems. It wasn’t that far removed from “Heal the World”, which also seemed blissfully simple in its solutions to societal problems. I will always remember the latter as the song played at funeral for the child murder victim, James Bulger, and the public response to this appalling tragedy.

I don’t like to have regrets in life, but I would have loved to have attended a Michael Jackson concert. He certainly changed things with his music videos and his actual music is regularly sampled and covered, but it was on stage where the “truth” of the Michael Jackson icon was truly realized. Like Elvis, The Beetles, Mick Jagger, Tom Jones and Jim Morrison, Michael Jackson knew how to work an audience and they adored him for it. I remember watching the opening the 1992 concert in Bucharest, when I was officially a lapsed fan. Despite my distancing from all that was pop at the time, I couldn’t help but be snared from the beginning until the end of the concert. All the set pieces were extraordinary and Jackson’s performances were as good as ever, but the show’s opening said it all.

The audience were whooped up in anticipation as they awaited the singer’s arrival, listening to that most dramatic of classical anthems, Carmina Burana’s “O Fortuna”. It happened in a flash as Jackson leaped out of nowhere and then stood perfectly like a statue for what seemed like an eternity, propelling the audience into an ever-increasing state of euphoria. My mother, a born and bred circus woman, always talks about the “Wow Factor” in acts. This the defining moment in a performance that sends a stream of uncontrollable and chaotic energy through an audience. Many performers work for years perfecting and protecting this single element that will ensure they get repeat bookings on the best shows and in the best venues. Jackson’s wow factor is perhaps almost incomparable in at least the second half of 20th century. That time between his arrival and until he hit the first notes of the song, Jam, said everything about the years of hard work put into his career and the huge body of fans he had built around him. The audience knew they were going to get the show of their lives and that certainty is beautifully reflected in those few minutes of nothingness.

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