MICHAEL JACKSON HAS GONE VIRAL. He’s everywhere now, from repeated appearances on the front page of the New York Times to the cover of Newsweek to unprecedented sales spikes on Apple’s iTunes Store. He managed to dethrone a political sex scandal from news cycle dominance - no mean feat these days - and the story has legs of the sort that will surely carry us with rapt attention through through the legal wrangling over his estate, the custody of his children, and the salacious details of abuses and trysts and surgeries heretofore unknown, but somehow inevitable.
It is this last item that carries an especial interest, because it so departs from the normative approach to extreme celebrity to which we have all become accustomed. Why is it that the coverage of Mr. Jackson’s death has been so unusually respectful? Why is the media thus far minimizing the nefarious aspects of his life? Perhaps it has nothing to do with altruism, or deferential respect, or the simple common decency that might otherwise be accorded the everyman, or even the garden-variety celebrity. It is nothing more, and nothing less, than an act of naked self-interest.
For much of his life, Michael Jackson and American Pop Culture were synonymous. Like the Beatles before him, he became iconically, and therefore inextricably linked to the entertainment business itself, and his discography is regarded by many as the soundtrack of an entire generation. There can be little doubt as to the range and significance of his influence; his talent was genuine, his work ethic was legion, and his showmanship was literally unprecedented. Yet the Michael Jackson we choose to remember is larger than all of this - a glossy, outsize, disproportionate product of marketing, media, and the culture of celebrity.
In considering the trajectory of his his life, we must recognize that Michael Jackson was, above all, famous. He wasn’t simply a star - he was the star. He specialized in fame itself. Beyond music, beyond dance, beyond showmanship -- beyond all of it -- what he offered the world was a highly stylized and almost entirely fabricated vision of himself. He manufactured a lifestyle and a public image that was designed to elevate and distance himself far from the madding crowd. He specialized in the craft of inscrutability, using entourage and eccentricity to mask both the mundane and prurient details of his personal life. Michael Jackson did not invent celebrity, he perfected it. His was the domain of pop culture - shiny, hollow, bereft of gravitas; full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Somehow, we all seem to think this is a good thing. A quintessentially American thing. Sadly, only the latter is true.
The pop culture that Mr. Jackson once personified is what remains of our once dominant American influence - influence that was characterized by freedom, democracy, the rule of law, the moral authority of due process, the fourth estate, and the insistent, persistent respect for basic human rights. These latter traits have been discarded in the last decade in favor of imperialism, oligarchy, the yellow press, and enhanced interrogation techniques, leaving only the plastic, sequined glint of the modern American dream to capture the imagination of the impoverished, the oppressed, and the vanishing middle class. A low quality catnip, to be sure.
American pop is the culture of consumption, artifice, and arrogance. From Madonna to Paris Hilton, it is the deification of style over substance. It glorifies the brand and obscures the product. It enshrines identification - with anything and everything - as the preferred and proper currency of the marketplace. This is the opposite of real culture, which permeates the social fabric over long periods of time, invisibly shaping the sum and substance of daily life. Real culture is anthropological -- long-form behavioral patterns than refine and perfect the uniqueness of a place and a people. Culture, in this sense, is not, and cannot be arrogant. Culture is the antidote to arrogance.
The problem with real culture is that it is boring. It doesn’t sell advertising. It can’t be branded - at least not easily. And sometimes, it is exactly the sort of thing that shouldn’t be advertised. The racist undercurrent of the deep south; the rampant corruption of Tammany Hall; the flagrant intolerance of the religious right; the entitlement mentality of the welfare state -- these are widespread and systemic enough to suggest deep cultural underpinnings of the sort that we prefer to disregard in favor of glitter and glamour and the utopian myth of the Guilded Society. And so we idolize our entertainers and our politicians and our captains of industry as if they were actually representative of us. In doing so, we deflect our gaze from the more productive but more difficult work of reinforcing our genuine strengths, and improving the all-too-human weaknesses that give rise to such super-size nonsense. This is naked self-interest of the shallowest sort.
What are the essential qualities of the American character? This is an interesting and vital question that each of us might pose to our ourselves and to each other on this July 4th holiday. Some will tout the genius of the American Constitution, even as the rule of law is disregarded, and our system of checks and balances is threatened by the unitary presidency and the presidential signing statement. Some will speak of our homeland as a ‘melting pot,’ even as we erect fences and restrict immigration. Some will lay claim to freedom of religion while impugning it’s more important corollary - freedom from religion. We will each have our own definitions, and like us, they will be imperfect. But who among us will put pop culture at the top of the list? Who will put it on the list at all? Surely not those with something to say; only those with something to sell. It’s clear as the nose on Mr. Jackson’s face.