In the annals of one-hit-wonders, Rockwell is the ultimate cautionary tale. It proves, for one thing, that a foot in the door and celebrity friends aren’t enough to launch a career. Aspiring singer Kennedy Gordy had the might and power of his father Berry Gordy’s entire Motown empire as his springboard. Imagine having a father with the power to tell Michael Jackson to come sing backup for you, and then finding out that people only bought your record because they thought it was a Michael Jackson song. Maybe Rockwell’s first mistake was taking that overly ambitious stage name, which all too easily became an ironic punchline. Rock well? He does no such thing! Actually, his first mistake was trying to launch a musical career while having very little talent at a record company known for congregating some of the most legendary musical talent of all time. But also it was the dumb name, which made the singer seem like an anonymous hack, a corny guest artist on what’s very obviously a Michael Jackson song. And people still think it’s a Michael Jackson song. It’s on all the Michael Jackson compilations, while Rockwell’s own album isn’t even available on Spotify. The lesson is, don’t try to disguise your own mediocrity by standing next to someone outstanding.
A few months ago, Austin’s long-running nightlife institution 80’s Night at Elysium announced that they would no longer be featuring the music of Michael Jackson (except by request.) Many radio stations and 80’s themed events did the same. The King of Pop was canceled. Why? Because of a new documentary that made it – in nauseating, explicit detail – very, very hard to deny the accusations that Jackson had been a rampaging pedophile.
We’re living in the days of ‘cancel culture’, where cultural value is weighed against perceived personal virtue, and for the most part, it’s been enormously cleansing and cathartic. But it also invites serious debate about what gets canceled, when, and why. There’s no clear consensus, because everyone has their own boundaries of what they find acceptable. But if anyone clearly deserves to have all of their accolades posthumously revoked, it’s Michael Jackson, right? But we can’t cancel Michael Jackson. We need him now more than ever. We need to confront all the ways that Jackson is the totem of everything that’s gone wrong with our pop culture.
It may be possible to cancel an obscure or mediocre artist, but Michael Jackson was neither of those things. Are pop divas and their choreographers suddenly going to stop emulating his dance moves in their music videos? Not very fucking likely. (Sick fact: one of the victims featured in the Leaving Neverland documentary grew up to be an influential music video choreographer who instructed the likes of Britney Spears in the fine art of synchronized grotch-grabbing.) Millions and millions of records sold all over the world over the course of decades can’t be removed from the memories of the people who enjoyed them. That’s cultural impact.
Also, why now? Why not in 1993, when the first accusations of child sexual abuse came to light? Well, that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? That’s where we have to take a long hard look at the metaphorical man in the mirror. Obviously, the culture has changed. It has changed over the past century, and it has changed over the last two or three years. The first change has been in the gradual secularization of society, in which the elevated role once occupied by the church and its leaders has been replaced by popular culture and the entertainers who shape it. This has allowed a person like Michael Jackson, who came from nowhere special and had no power, skills or schooling in the traditional sense, to ascend to a pope-like position of influence and notoriety. He’s hardly the first, the only, or the final person to be in that position, of course. Many people have occupied it to varying degrees, and they handled it with varying degrees of grace. One glaring thing we’ve learned is that being a secular icon is not a very desirable or healthy position to be in, and many of the people put there either abuse their power or destroy themselves. (Michael Jackson did both.) We place people on pedestals because God is dead but we still like pedestals.
More recently, though, our perception of our icons has changed. Our relationship with the power structures that have been in place for generations has changed. Of course, resistance against unjust power structures is as old as civilization, but now that so much of our cultural identity is in the chimerical sphere of entertainment, the entertaining is also the political. We’re tearing down our secular icons, in other words. We’re punishing the people we’ve put on pedestals for committing human misdeeds, but not really questioning why we thought they needed to be up there in the first place. Yes, of course, people who commit misdeeds should be held accountable and those who commit crimes should be punished. The question is why we love them so much that we expect them to do neither and feel personally betrayed when they do both.
So let’s take another look at the sad and pathetic saga of Michael Jackson. I’m too young to remember a time before he was tainted by scandal, but I’ve been told that before the child-fucking, he was considered to be very wholesome. The world watched him grow up, for god’s sakes. He was an adorable, gifted child; who became an adorable, soft-spoken, un-rebellious, gifted adolescent; who grew up to be a visionary, business-savvy, bazillion-selling artist. And if he started to get a little weird as he matured, he carried enough residual sympathy that his weirdness at first seemed endearing, or at least understandable, or, finally, a symptom of problems which were not his fault, to which we could still extend sympathy. Which we should, extend sympathy, that is. There’s no question that Jackson was a victim, an exploited child himself, someone who literally never had a normal day in his life and had no basis for forming a normal identity. There isn’t really another example of anyone who became that famous, that young, under such abusive circumstances, who went on to become even more famous, under that much scrutiny, and remained under the most intense scrutiny even after no longer being able to do the work he’d become famous for in the first place. Because the hits eventually stopped coming, but the attention never went away. The weirdness became the work. Michael Jackson had to entertain, it was the thing he’d been doing all his life, the only thing he knew how to do, the only thing anyone ever wanted him to do, and if he no longer had the spirit to make music, he would do it by being a mutilated, grotesque ghost of himself. When the scandal broke that Wacko Jacko stood accused of interfering with children, that was entertaining too. More entertaining than hit songs or music videos. This was a real-time, real-life Grand Guignol horror spectacle, and it sold one hell of a lot of newspapers. The fact that he was able to throw enough money at the problem to make it go away was a miscarriage of justice, but that too was entertaining. Then the inevitable sequel happened, and he weaseled his way out of that too, and it was entertaining. Then he died, killed by his longtime drug addiction, aided and abetted – as it always is – by exploitative management and sycophantic doctors. That was entertaining as fuck. His memorial service was shown, live, in movie theatres. The whole entire saga is a sick example of putting a blameless person – a child! – onto a cultural pedestal before the adoring eyes of millions, and then watching him grow increasingly sick and deranged until he finally drops dead.
None of which excuses or minimizes the fact that he fucked little boys. He did. He was a pedophile. There’s no two ways about it. The shell-shocked recollections of his now-grown victims just brings it into sharper focus. Michael Jackson scouted, groomed, seduced and raped little boys, over the course of decades, all while treating their families to five-star vacations and buying them homes and helping them in their careers. He got away with it, because he was richer than God and still had enough people on his side to defend him. He had enough people who still believed that he was just a harmless eccentric who meant well, that he was a victim who’d lost his own childhood and was just trying to reclaim it, that he was doing good for those kids and it was all just a big misunderstanding, that he had been framed by nameless enemies who were out to get him, that the victims were money-grubbing lying little scoundrels, etc. Anything but the glaring probability that a wealthy, isolated and mentally ill man could have abnormal sexual proclivities and freedom to pursue them with little fear of recourse.
Michael Jackson wasn’t canceled in 1993, or in 2003, and he’s probably not going to stay canceled now, either. In 1993, and in 2003, it was clear that we’d decided that the entertainment value of Jackson’s work outweighed whatever harm he might have done to a couple, or even a dozen, little kids. Worse, it seems that we’d also decided that the entertainment value of the accusations themselves, the spectacle of watching an icon fall from grace, outweighed all of the harm done. Enough for Jackson to go on being an icon, albeit a severely tainted one. Let him go on being an icon, then. Let him be a dark symbol of the media age. Let him be the worst example of the ongoing battle between artistic immortality and personal disgrace. There’s nothing lower that hurting children. People who’ve gone down in history for their atrocities still drew the line of decency at child-fucking. On the other hand there’s nothing more celebrated than selling a few millions records and making some really cool music videos. We’re here now weighing the relative merits of a man who made some of the best pop songs of all time, but who probably also fucked a few children, and we’ve consistently come to the conclusion that those things more or less balance each other out. That’s were we are now, as a culture. That’s what Michael Jackson is an icon of. Never forget Neverland.
This song exemplifies the central irony of Michael Jackson’s legacy; the vast disconnect between the message he wanted to impart and the one we inadvertently perceived. The song has a wonderful message; “If you wanna make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make a change.” It really couldn’t be any clearer. In the video, Jackson mixes footage of himself performing in a vast stadium with images of MLK, Gandhi and other important political figures. Jackson at his height of stardom had an enormous platform for activism, and he was dedicated to humanitarian work. He wanted to position himself as a major player, a serious force for doing good in the world. And he had the potential to become the kind of global ambassodor of social issues that celebs like Bono and Angelina Jolie have become. It is unfortunate that his personal problems so thoroughly undercut his ambitions. He simply made himself impossible to take seriously. Because when Jackson sings about taking a hard look in the mirror, we don’t think ‘hey, maybe that’s what I should be doing!’ We wonder what it was that Jackson saw when he looked in his. It’s highly likely that he suffered from some form of body dysmorphic disorder; a mental illness that causes people to have a skewed perception of their appearance. (For example, anorexics who remain convinced they’re obese even as they starve to death.) Some people have speculated that Jackson wanted to erase every feature that could remind him of his abusive father, others think the surgeries were just an unorthodox way of dealing with the changes wrought by vitiligo, but in reality, we just don’t know what it was he saw in himself that he hated so much. We do know that instead of focusing on the kind of world changes he clearly dreamed of bringing about, he got hopelessly sidelined by whatever monsters were in his head and slowly descended into some weird alternate reality of his own making.
I recently read an interesting article about the assimilation of black music into mainstream white culture, and in it, Michael Jackson was used as the ultimate example of that assimilation. I’m not entirely convinced that Jackson deserves ALL the credit for mainstreaming black music, but he undoubtedly blazed a path onto record charts, radio stations and television rotation like no one before him. Black music – jazz, rhythm’n’blues, motown, funk, reggae, etc, – had been popular for decades, but it’s true that black artists were not permitted as much real cultural prominence and superstar status, nor did they sell as many records as, their white counterparts. Until Michael Jackson became as close to universally popular as it was possible for any one man. The obvious irony is that he did so by being the world’s least intimidating black man. It’s somewhat cruel to point out that he also literally became white, but that is definitely a part of the irony. I think it’s a given that the reason black artists have been marginalized and not given respect is because white people love black music but hate black people (I read that somewhere). So the coveted mainstream white audience enjoys grooving to some funky music, but doesn’t like to be reminded that it’s made by people they find terrifying in real life, i.e. black men. Enter an absolutely adorable little boy with way too much talent, who grows into a soft-spoken young man who looks androgynous without appearing to be a sexual being at all, and boom, world domination. Michael Jackson was presented from the beginning as being younger than he was. It’s common practice to pass child stars off as younger, but the fact that Jackson’s father was an abusive monster leads me to suspect that perhaps some forced infantilization went on – and I’m speculating here – causing Michael to behave in a childlike manner past adolescence and way into adulthood. Whatever happened, Jackson never grew into conventional masculinity (and maybe that was just the way that he was and his upbringing had nothing to do with it.) He was slender, feminine, high voiced and gave off no real sexual vibe whatsoever, no matter how often he grabbed his crotch. Here at last was a black dude with none of that scary masculinity that turns white people off so much. Then, of course, he actually became white, but to be fair, parts of his physical transformation were medically necessitated. The eerie skin tone, for example, was a result of a condition called vitiligo, which causes the skin to lose pigment. The glossy, smooth hair – wigs worn after an explosion burned half his scalp away. The nose jobs might be excused by a pathological need to excise all resemblance to his hated father. The tattooed on eyeliner and lipstick are all on him, though. The point is, Jackson was not actively trying to make himself more widely appealing by having a blackendectomy. He never turned his back on his heritage or the musical tradition he was a part of. He simply, through a combination of his own mental problems and the record buying public’s squeamish relations with race, achieved an unheard of level of popularity by appearing to become an entirely new race altogether. Obviously, from the video, he wished to eliminate racism and inequality (by showing African tribesmen doing an ooga-booga dance? Not the smartest, and what the hell’s up with Macauley Culkin?) but how much good did he do, I’m not sure. In case you haven’t noticed, America is still racist as fuck, and I don’t see anyone else being the King of Pop, so maybe all this trailblazing and assimilation that MJ gets credited for still has a ways to go.
Need some cheering up today? Here are some adorable singing children. Heartwarming. Except it’s not. It’s an early chapter in one of the best known and most tragic sagas in showbiz. The story of a prodigiously talented little boy left hopelessly damaged by a combination of horrifically bad parenting, adult-size responsibility, and the unceasing pressure of public scrutiny. We all know the story of Michael Jackson, from his start as a gifted child fronting his brothers in The Jackson 5, to his untimely death as a drug addicted, tarnished and unrecognizable object of mockery. What does it tell us about the state of pop culture that this man’s very obvious personal problems became more entertaining than his professional achievements? Jackson was undeniably nothing less than weird, and it was admittedly hard not to be fascinated by his bizarre behavior, but at the same time the way the media intruded into his life and blared headlines about his every move, and the way we sat back and watched, was downright ghoulish. We all know this. By the time Jackson passed away, we’d all been watching his decline for years, decades even. It’s sad and ironic that this ugly legacy hangs over Jackson’s career, because what he did best was make happy-music. Pop music for dancing, pop music that was supposed to cheer people up and make everyone feel good. Now instead of properly enjoying the hell out of a really fun pop song, we involuntarily cringe and feel very sad and kind of confused and disgusted as we try to reconcile the image of that cute little boy with what we know he would become.
Some thoughts on two movies I watched this week, which have nothing at all in common except that their respective stars were good friends in real life, and both are now no longer with us.
First, Micheal Jackson’s This Is It, the documentary cobbled together from footage of Jackson’s rehearsals for his planned series of London concerts in 2009. Those concerts never happened and what was meant to be footnotes became the whole show, because Jackson died mere weeks before the first performance. The documentary that was rushed out in tribute will be a treat for Jackson’s fans, and of interest to anyone interested in the inner machinations of show business. What we see is Jackson working closely with musicians, dancers, set designers, videographers and others to perfect what was meant to be a spectacle to end all spectacles. He was planning to come out of a giant robot, show 3D video and have a custom designed bulldozer roll up on stage. Also a cherry picker. Some of the creative participants briefly get to talk, but there’s no interviews with MJ and the focus is strictly on the musical numbers. Jackson meant for these concerts to be comeback, to remind people why he was famous in the first place, his musical legacy having of late been overshadowed by the tabloid image of Wacko Jacko the delusional millionaire pop star with no nose and a set of disturbing legal woes. Judging from this footage, he would have succeeded. Although he appears extremely thin and has the face of a horror puppet, the singular voice and commanding stage presence are still there in full. And though he repeatedly states that he’s holding back and saving himself for the real thing, he can be seen effortlessly executing complex choreography, easily outmoving dancers half his age, all the while sounding exactly like he did on record. He does not appear like a man about to die – he’s engaged, professional and clearly in his element. It’s certainly fascinating, even for casual fans, to watch a born entertainer in the midst of the creative process.
Then, randomly yet not, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? starring Michael Jackson’s bosom buddy Elizabeth Taylor at her best. Not her most glamorous or beautiful, but certainly her best as an actress. Taylor’s performance as a woman insane with alcohol and discontent is one of her greatest roles, and she leaves all movie star vanity at the door. The movie is a classic, with great a great performance from then-Mr Taylor Richard Burton, and the stinging words of Edward Albee’s play. There’s a lot to be said about what it says about the social mores of the times (firmly in the “evil 50’s” genre) and the oft bitter realities of marriage and broken dreams. But what I immediately thought of, and this might actually be a novel interpretation, is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. (If you don’t know what that is, watch this video.) Movies show this fantasy ad nauseum – the sullen, sensitive depressive intellectual/hipster/artsy type male loser is inexorably drawn out of his funk by the adventurous spirit of a vivacious, unconventional, devil-may-care cool chick. It’s all part of the old male fantasy that awesome chicks are interested in pursuing sullen loser types for absolutely no reason. And how does Liz Taylor tie in with all this? Well, when I saw this movie, I could instantly see the MPDG type relationship, 30 years and way too many bottles of wine later. This is how it happens after the rom-com happy ending. The sullen intellectual loser is still a sullen intellectual loser who, having gone nowhere in life, is wallowing in his shame and sense of inadequacy. The Manic Pixie is now a manic depressive alcoholic, boiling over with rage at her wasted life. Because they’re actually a terrible combination. They do nothing but bring out the worst in each other. He’s ruined her life and feels guilty. She knows her life is ruined and resents it. It’s a bitter downward spiral of tears, insults and accusations, fueled by endless bottles of ‘bourgin’. Yes, watch this movie then go watch some of the movies discussed in the video and tell me if those aren’t the same characters, before and after reality crushed the spirit out them both.
Recommended for dance aficionados; Michael Jackson videos. I’m guessing I’m not the only one for whom Jackson became a somewhat less guilty pleasure when he passed away. His death relieved the sickening sensation of watching an airplane fall out of the sky. The loose ends of the saga are still gathering up; Jackson’s physician was recently convicted of manslaughter and avalanches of personal debris is expected to hit auction soon. But it’s a relief the poor man’s finally out of his misery. Let’s enjoy those video for what they are; a master class in pop showmanship. Yeah, he’s starting to lean towards the bad side of freakish. His nose is in a transitional stage, and the hair is a wig (a sad necessity due to second-degree scalp burns suffered in ’84) but he still looks black, and healthy. Whatever. That’s some dancing.