Where were you when you found out the King of Pop had moon walked to that great fairground in the sky? It’s bizarre to think that Michael Jackson is dead. It’s a bit like learning that Mickey Mouse just died in a car accident or that Peter Pan passed away after a short illness. It’s baffling, the brain contracts as you try to imagine the two ideas in the same sentence, then you realise the problem, you had forgotten that Michael Jackson was actually real. He wasn’t from a cartoon or a character from a film you used to like in the eighties but an actual human being. He had morphed into a brand, a piece of pop culture, like a McDonald’s Happy Meal, you’d be forgiven for forgetting he had a heart, let alone one that could stop beating.
What are truly sad are the clips of the young Michael being shown on the news, the innocence, the desperate need to please. The jittery energy that at the time was endearing now seems unnerving and slightly haunting. In light of the physical and mental abuse we now know he was suffering from his father and the odd unsettling life we know lay in front of him, this image of the smiling big eyed boy manically singing for our entertainment is disquieting and slightly chilling. What a sad, lonely life the whoop, bopping boy had ahead of him, eventually dying exiled from his Neverland, in a rented house, attempting to revive a disgraced career with comeback gigs he was physically incapable of, exploited as ruthlessly is his fragile last days as he was in his younger years. In a career that soared from the sublime sound of Mowtown, swooped over the shameful era of black artists boycotted by MTV and ended in an America with a Black President in the Whitehouse, Jackson’s life bridged two different worlds.
Michael, the first black artist to play on MTV, was the African American male Middle America would let date their daughter. He was bland, he was safe he wasn’t the scary Blackman they saw on the news, huddled at the gates with an angry look in their eye. Instead of the intimidating alpha machismo of the racist stereotype he was an effete, high pitched androgynous No-Where man. In an America and Britain still reeling from race riots he was safe halfway between black and white, male and female, adult and child. It was this willingness to blend in, to acquiesce, that made him acceptable and paved the way for other black artists who would never have to dream of such compromises.
Michal could be seen as the personification of the American dream gone rotten. The soul, the sweat, the heart of the early Jackson Five magic, gradually morphing into the slickly produced mainstream pop of Reagan’s eighties, till Michael’s creativity became lost in a blizzard of expensive videos, overproduced emptiness and the soul corroding oblivion of spend spend spending. His music was the sound track for the “Greed is Good” eighties, buy Michael, buy Pepsi, buy America, buy happiness, and just as the banks and the dream of unrestricted consumption collapses around us Michael their poster boy dies frail, feeble, and broken, like the personification of the dream the decade he dominated promised.
He’ll be remembered as Michael the pop icon, the music, the videos, the money but that little boy dancing for our pleasure, what became of him?. What happens to the soul of a man who is never told no, who’s every whim is indulged, encouraged and sated, who spends an adult life never having to deal with consequences, responsibilities even morals because he is making the people around him so much money. The dark, disturbing excesses a human being is capable of descending to was glimpsed during the accusations of child abuse that money and expensive lawyers silenced. His life turned into a cautionary gothic fable about what happens when one’s every wish and desire is granted, the result is unsettling, horrifying and disturbing.
In The portrait of Dorian Grey, the anti-hero’s record of madness and excess is revealed in a hidden portrait in an attic; Michael Jackson wore the consequences of his life unchecked on his horrifically butchered, betrayed face. It is a portrait for our times, of what happens when you sell everything and know the value of nothing. His face became a grinning skull of an empty man and empty generation who sold their soul a long time ago.