In celebrity culture we destroy what we worship. The commercial exploitation of Michael Jackson’s death was orchestrated by the corporate forces that rendered Jackson insane. Jackson, robbed of his childhood and surrounded by vultures that preyed on his fears and weaknesses, was so consumed by self-loathing he carved his African-American face into an ever-changing Caucasian death mask and hid his apparent pedophilia behind a Peter Pan illusion of eternal childhood. He could not disentangle his public and his private self. He became a commodity, a product, one to be sold, used and manipulated. He was infected by the moral nihilism and personal disintegration that are at the core of our corporate culture. And his fantasies of eternal youth, delusions of majesty, and desperate, disfiguring quests for physical transformation were expressions of our own yearning. He was a reflection of us in the extreme.
His memorial service—a variety show with a coffin—had an estimated 31.1 million television viewers. The ceremony, which featured performances or tributes from Stevie Wonder, Brooke Shields and other celebrities, was carried live on 19 networks, including the major broadcast and cable news outlets. It was the final episode of the long-running Michael Jackson series. And it concluded with Jackson’s daughter, Paris, being prodded to stand in front of a microphone to speak about her father. Janet Jackson, before the girl could get a few words out, told Paris to “speak up.” As the child broke down, the adults around her adjusted the microphone so we could hear the sobs. The crowd clapped. It was a haunting echo of what destroyed her father.
The stories we like best are “real life” stories—early fame, wild success and then a long, bizarre and macabre emotional train wreck. O.J Simpson offered a tamer version of the same plot. So does Britney Spears. Jackson, by the end, was heavily in debt and had weathered a $22 million out-of-court settlement payment to Jordy Chandler, as well as seven counts of child sexual abuse and two counts of administering an intoxicating agent in order to commit a felony. We fed on his physical and psychological disintegration, especially since many Americans are struggling with their own descent into overwhelming debt, loss of status and personal disintegration.
The lurid drama of Jackson’s personal life meshed perfectly with the ongoing dramas on television, in movies and in the news. News thrives on “real life” stories, especially those involving celebrities. News reports on television are mini-dramas complete with a star, a villain, a supporting cast, a good-looking host and a dramatic, if often unexpected, ending. The public greedily consumed “news” about Jackson, especially in his exile and decline, which often outdid most works of fiction. In “Fahrenheit 451,” Ray Bradbury’s novel about a future dystopia, people spend most of the day watching giant television screens that show endless scenes of police chases and criminal apprehensions. Life, Bradbury understood, once it was packaged, scripted, given a narrative and filmed, became the most compelling form of entertainment. And Jackson was a great show. He deserved a great finale.
Those who created Jackson’s public persona and turned him into a piece of property, first as a child and finally as a corpse encased in a $15,000 gold-plated casket, are the agents, publicists, marketing people, promoters, script writers, television and movie producers, advertisers, video technicians, photographers, bodyguards, recording executives, wardrobe consultants, fitness trainers, pollsters, public announcers and television news personalities who create the vast stage of celebrity for profit. They are the puppet masters. No one achieves celebrity status, no cultural illusion is swallowed as reality, without these armies of cultural enablers and intermediaries. The producers at the Staples Center in Los Angeles made sure the 18,000 attendees and the television audience (even the BBC devoted three hours to the tribute) watched a funeral that was turned into another maudlin form of uplifting popular entertainment.
The memorial service for Jackson was a celebration of celebrity. There was the queasy sight of groups of children, including his own, singing over the coffin. Magic Johnson put in a plug for Kentucky Fried Chicken. Shields, fighting back tears, recalled how she and a 33-year-old Jackson—who always maintained that he was straight—broke into Elizabeth Taylor’s room the night before her last wedding to “get the first peek of the [wedding] dress.” Shields and Jackson, at Taylor’s wedding, then joked that they were “the mother and father of the bride.”
“Yes, it may have seemed very odd to the outside,” Shields said, “but we made it fun and we made it real.”
There were photo montages in which a shot of Jackson shaking hands with Nelson Mandela was immediately followed by one of him with Kermit the Frog. Fame reduces all of the famous to the same level. Fame is its own denominator. And every anecdote seemed to confirm that when you spend your life as a celebrity, you have no idea who you are.