Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Peter Pan Has Really Left the Building: Michael Jackson Thru Sunglasses Darkly

More of a warning than a destination
Michael Jackson turned pro in 1968-69. But he doesn’t have a lot to do with 60’s pop culture. He belongs to the sequined, coked-up 80s, a decade in which he was most powerful as a fashion force.

What he can offer us is bookmarks on the nature of celebrity, especially U.S. celebrity—the most aggressive kind—that has effectively euthanized talent stretching from Chaplin to Brando. In the late 60s, the paparazzi had yet to crank up. There was still enough war-generation sense of collective decency to temper the mass tabloids. In the new millennium, the notion of privacy has been degraded to the point where it’s as vulnerable as an infant.

Jackson called himself ‘The King of Pop’…not ‘pop music’, just ‘pop’ as in ‘popular’. The fact that he even gave himself a lofty moniker is sad— for such a thing is earned, not granted. He was battling with the lightness of his being, banal and appealing as a Warhol soup can.

A more accurate—but ultimately distressing—appellation for Jackson is ‘King of Fame’. Because that’s what he was about: his career deftly parallels the explosion in pop media. The imbalance now between talent and fame is so precarious that even those with gifts, such as Jackson, are smashed apart in a multimedia whirlwind. Few have the perspective and stamina to remain grounded.

Fame doesn’t pay you; you pay it, forgoing privacy, domesticity, family love, and peace of mind. Jackson’s popularity intertwined with his life in that same scorching, self-destroying furnace that immolated Judy Garland and a hundred more honored with sepulchral, concrete hand prints: all those unfortunate enough to bypass childhood, dragged screaming from the playground by fierce, brisk parents, on their way to a Savings Account.

But he was intuitive: Jackson knew he had more to do with popular entertainment than music: he was a package of singing, dancing, fashion, cosmetics and self-mutilation, an Emmett Kelly clown pulled thru sunglasses darkly. Those who baited him with charges of pedophilia were unaware that Jackson was already chained and dying in a silk-lined dungeon of his own decree.

He altered his appearance, with surgery and chemicals, trying to reconcile a healthy body with a sick mind. Or was the other way around? In his final years, Michael Jackson seemed to be in a death struggle with himself.

Gifted boy, confused man
His executors may as well sell Neverland, his sprawling Santa Barbara estate and personal monument to mental illness, named in homage to Peter Pan. It’s hard to see it as ever becoming Gracelandish, but tourism can be morbid and clever.

James M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan, once wrote, “Dreams do come true, if we only wish hard enough. You can have anything in life if you will sacrifice everything else for it.”

Maybe it has to do with dreams and sacrifice, but more likely it’s about a passion for popularity, a pursuit that destroys all grownups, every single one of them, no questions asked.