Although I wasn’t a fan of Michael Jackson, news of his death shocked me more than any other celebrity or public figure I can recall.
Since I’m an early bedder and London is eight hours ahead of L.A., I didn’t see the news until the next morning. In fact when I saw his face plastered on the BBC website I presumed it was about his upcoming concerts and clicked on other stories. It wasn’t until I opened another news site I saw the headline "Michael Jackson Dies at 50," and I found myself unexpectedly dismayed.
Jackson was almost certainly the last great global superstar. "Thriller" dominated music in a way that is hard grasp now. For a few years Michael Jackson was a licence to print money. Virtually every track from Thriller was released as a single, much to my exasperation. For the music industry, those were the days, indeed.
Jackson had already tumbled from the peak of his celebrity when he stunned the public by revealing young boys shared his bed. Now, either Jackson was so arrogant and/or deluded that he thought this was acceptable or he was so ignorant of social norms that he thought nothing sensational of this. It may not have been madness but even then it was clear that this was a man dangerously detached from reality. Doubtless we all have our own interpretation.
What he incontestably did was expose himself to an energetic battalion of parents who couldn’t wait to get their kids in his custody. Like medieval pilgrims they swarmed the road to Neverland, where they willing sacrificed their children to Jackson’s whims, hoping the legal gods would look favourably upon them. It is somewhat appropriate that his death has brought the grave-robbers and looters out in force. Jackson certainly unleashed the baser instincts of others.
Just when we seemed inured to the celebrity excesses, it was painful to be reminded that Michael Jackson was once a bubbly, frothy child who underwent a long, slow and gruesome public metamorphosis, worthy of a Kafka parable, or even an unintentional homage to his transformation in the famous video of "Thriller." Whatever happened in Neverland was aided and abetted by a squadron of willing lackeys.
Was there not a single Jackson employee who troubled by even a glimmer of conscience? What does it take before a surgeon refuses a patient’s request? As always, money is a wonderful lullaby.
Jackson is a totem of the nihilism, recklessness, patheticness, powerlessness and unending despair of extreme fame — he is also the last in that line. Even before the internet changed the game, celebrities of durable fame and bankability were become rare. Today you pretend your kid’s in a balloon and the world stops to take notice. Celebrity has been colonized, almost completely, by people with no discernible talent to celebrate.
It was clear, too, that resentment of Jackson was still strong when the squabble over who should be paying for the funeral security and upheaval became a tabloid conclusion to an unhappy life. Ever since filmmakers decamped here for reliable sunshine, entertainment has been a part of Los Angeles’s identity so it seemed, to me, anyway, churlish to gripe about the cost or inconvenience.
The televised service was light on the spiritual, but it was restrained and relatively tasteful apart from the excruciating and self-important warbling of Coretta Scott King. Many viewers would have wondered about the whereabouts of the sobbing Jackson family when their wayward son was engulfed by personal and financial problems.
Well, we know the dead can’t be libelled and it is not certain if any confidentiality clause could be enforced so we may yet see memoirs of the "inside story" variety that claim to shed light on the happenings at Neverland. The Jackson story, in life and now in death, only sheds light on what we, the audience, consider to be suitable entertainment.
Talent and a capable performance is not enough. We demand more. Torment fits the bill for the obsessives who feel they could cure their idol’s ills. The media need sensation — ideally something lurid to tap the reliable geyser of public bile.
The sad existence of Michael Jackson, from cash-cow to pariah via freak show, fitted the bill like no other.