Tonight’s NBC Dateline special, Michael Jackson: Unmasked, was disappointingly lame; it was poorly edited and full of hot air, neither showing any intelligence nor feeding my morbid voyeuristic fascination. Still, it led me to some new thoughts on the situation….
The more stuff I see about Jackson, the more I think he is a tragic figure–despite the fact that, like everyone else, I am getting off on the sheer bizarreness of what I still want to call his self-fashioning.
The only insightful commentary in the show came from music critic Toure, who rightly called Jackson “a poster figure for black self-hatred.” Indeed, what else could explain Jackson’s 20-year whitening of his features?
I am often inclined to think that metamorphosis, especially when self-induced, is often a good in itself. And part of the appeal of many horror movies (think Cronenberg’s The Fly for example) is precisely that they affirm such metamorphosis, even when is too scary to possibly be voluntary, and even when it results in disaster. I think that Michael’s plastic surgeries and skin whitening procedures work as a cautionary tale for this attitude of mine. He’s become a singular freak, ironically enough, out of a desire to coincide with hegemonic “normality.” He has tried to flee his blackness and embrace mainstream whiteness–with the result that he has turned himself into a complete alien.
As for all the pedophilia stuff… it’s probably true, but that didn’t stop me from feeling more creeped out by the detective they interviewed on the show, who spent his life putting alleged pedophiliacs behind bars, than I ever have been by Jackson himself. The detective, and the show, totally radiated the attitude that anything “abnormal” or different was suspect, that to be “freakish” in any way was ipso facto to be a criminal and a pervert. Such attitudes scare me; they raise conformism to a transcendent principle, and in practice lead to police state abuses.
And in this particular case, they ignore the way that Jackson’s obsession with children (whether “innocent” or sexual) is really just an amplified reflection of the ways in which our society in general puts childhood on a pedestal: the hysterical insistence on children’s “purity,” and the witch hunts against alleged pedophiles, themselves create a pedophiliacal atmosphere. (Think of Jon Benet Ramsey, 6-year-old beauty queen and murder victim).
In the end, a total reversal of perspectives is needed. Everything that is sick and disturbed and morbid about Jackson is totally an expression of our culture of celebrity, and our culture of whiteness, and our culture of “innocence” and “purity.” To the extent that Michael Jackson has nonetheless expressed these dominant cultural tropes in such a freakish and singular way, he is still worthy of some sort of admiration and awe.
It’s hard for pop stars to remain relevant, in a culture where celebrity is everything. Off the Wall and Thriller remain in two decades’ retrospect great albums; as was also The Jacksons’ Triumph from the same period; but nothing Michael has done since comes anywhere close. It’s odd, today, how adult those old albums feel, how they mix vigorous and funky beats with strong and ambivalent emotion, in the subsequent light of Neverland and Jackson’s interest in 12-year-old boys.