Judging Jacko

Thanks especially to the obsessive ghoulishness of CNN, the American summer of 2009 will be remembered less for a debate on national healthcare than for the death of Michael Jackson, which has consumed the volume of television airtime befitting a presidential assassination.  Cable networks would have you believe that their hyenas have picked the singer’s bones clean solely because Jackson was such an internationally revered performer.  And if you believe that, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn that’s going cheap.

Consider this hypothetical scenario: a talented black child singer grows up to be a wildly successful pop star.  In adulthood, he is still black (obviously, you would think).  His face changes only to the degree that it ages a tad.  He’s heterosexual, and not associated with any scandals. Married twice, he has three children; unsurprisingly, they’re black, too. He’s wealthy, but invests his money wisely. At age 50, after a fallow period, he schedules an eagerly anticipated comeback tour.  Alas, during rehearsals, he abruptly drops dead — of natural causes.

What a pity. He was good, and his tunes from the Eighties bring back memories for those of us who were boogying in clubs at the time.  Nevertheless, how much airtime does Average Black Jacko’s untimely demise merit?  Is his memorial service on every channel and incessantly replayed for weeks?  Months later, are we still devoting whole “news” programmes to his family, his doctors, his many perfectly normal friends?

Hardly. Average Black Jacko’s death would command the respectful coverage of Robert McNamara’s passing; at most, of Walter Cronkite’s. The likes of Stevie Wonder, who appeared at Jackson’s memorial service, cannot expect the same ceaseless foofaraw to surround his own death, though his music is arguably the more distinguished.

At the 2007 Edinburgh Television festival, I coined the term “hyper-narrative” to mean “a good story that isn’t necessarily a big story.  It’s a story of nominal social importance that is played up disproportionately in the media because it satisfies what are essentially fictional appetites.” Though he was then still alive, I identified Michael Jackson as a classic hyper-narrative: Jackson gave good story.

While networks have scrambled to designate the self-crowned King of Pop as “the greatest entertainer of all time,” the superlative is dubious. Feigned hagiography justifies the real purpose of lavish coverage: rubbernecking a train wreck.

Michael Jackson was a study in shame.  He was ashamed of being black, ashamed of being gay. Making his posthumous embrace by African-Americans especially disconcerting, Jackson spent a fortune to efface every trace of his racial heritage — from his nose, his lips, his very skin. Although the media have embarrassedly skirted the fact, it is plainly obvious that all three of his children are white. Jackson must have been sufficiently repelled by his own race to ensure that whoever really fathered those children was of European descent. For whites, he feeds an ugly narrative: give a black guy a whack of cash, and what does he buy? Being white.

For gays, Jackson was a throwback who closeted his sexuality behind two sham marriages. Worse, his creepy proclivity for surrounding himself with little boys only helps to reinforce a misguided popular conflation of homosexuality and paedophilia.

Moreover, we secretly relish the cultural autopsy of anyone who had it all and was still so conspicuously miserable. If a man of unimaginable wealth and fame squandered his fortune on gaudy trinkets, carved up his own face like a standing rib roast, and hungrily sought oblivion in addiction to prescription drugs and surgical anaesthesia, our natural envy is ameliorated. See? We don’t need to covet what he had, because the guy lived in hell.

Poorly disguised voyeurism has put newscasters in the unconvincing position of pretending to find awesome snippets of rehearsals for a tour that, if the slight footage thus far released is anything to go by, was going to be awful. Jackson was as weak and thin as the music itself, his choreography evocative of an aerobics class for over-65s. This middle-aged emperor had plenty of clothes, but he sure couldn’t dance.

The Michael Jackson story is heartbreaking. He was clearly a lost soul. Even now, he remains a horrifying emblem of internalised prejudice and self-hatred. By all means, credit where due; many of his performances were fabulous, his songs catchy. But let’s not confuse admiration and fascination. Jackson’s story is compelling because it’s so depressing. I speak for myself, too. Sheepishly, I’ve followed every sordid revelation. But I’m under no illusion about what I am. I’m no fan in mourning. I’m a rubbernecker. 

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