Friday, 3 July 2009

Michael Jackson and the cult of celebrity

A week after Michael Jackson’s death on 25 June, his greatest hits album Number Ones tops the album chart, and four others have charted. Six of his singles have entered the Top 40. HMV reports an 80-fold increase in sales of his music. We are repeatedly informed that he sold 750 million records worldwide.

The mythologising of Jackson has intensified since his death. Documentaries and talking heads enthuse about his ‘genius’, his defining of popular culture, his global fame, and how he provided ‘a soundtrack to our lives’.[1]

Michael Jackson was one of the most important cultural figures of the last thirty or forty years — whether you enjoyed his work or not, his influence upon pop, video and dance is beyond question. Thriller alone revolutionised the music video as a medium. But whether he was in fact a ‘genius’ is, from capitalism’s point of view, completely irrelevant. Exceptional talent helps, because it makes the cult of celebrity more persuasive. But the purpose of ‘celebrity’ is to sell products. For the recording industry, the measure of quality is not creative but commercial success.

Create a mythology around an artist, and even their worst work will be bought in huge quantities, together with the usual mass of accompanying products like T-shirts, books and DVDs. People will watch a mediocre film simply because it has a favourite ‘star’ in it, or buy a weak album out of a sense of completism or loyalty. The identification of the fan with a particular personality — more correctly, a brand — becomes a pursuit in itself. A mass of magazines and other media work round the clock to glorify celebrity — without it, they and many other lucrative businesses couldn’t exist at all.

A fair assessment of Jackson’s achievement is difficult while the media remain dazzled by his ability to make money. Genuine appreciation of his work, and sadness at his death, must compete with commercialism until it is often difficult to tell them apart. With typical hypocrisy, the same tabloids that labelled him ‘Wacko Jacko’ eulogised him once he was dead. AEG Live’s cynical offer of a ‘souvenir ticket’ in lieu of refunding fans’ money is only one example of cashing in, or, as the chief executive put it, “Since [Jackson] loved his fans in life, it is incumbent upon us to treat them with the same reverence and respect after his death.”

A complex relationship exists between artists, the capitalist who distributes their work, and the values of wider society. In this atmosphere, artists are often complicit in the manufacturing of their celebrity, and Jackson was no exception. Stories of him sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber, or of his pet chimp Bubbles, were publicity stunts staged by him and/or his team deliberately to excite the media.

Statue for the HIStory tourStatue for the HIStory tour. Photo: Noud! (flickr)

The overblown statues created for the HIStory tour symbolise the milking of the cult of celebrity at a time when Jackson was faltering creatively. And his ‘messianic’ performance of Earth Song at the 1996 Brit Awards fully deserved its deflation by Jarvis Cocker.

Yet Jackson was the victim of celebrity as well as a beneficiary of it. Hounded by the media, repeatedly turning to plastic surgery, possibly anorexic, he was denied a childhood by his premature success. As remarked in the obituary by Caroline Sullivan in The Guardian:

The band’s working life was brutal: when they were not in studios they were on tour, sometimes playing 45 shows in 90 days. As lead singer, Michael’s schedule was more onerous than that of his brothers. After three hours’ daily tutoring, he spent the rest of the day recording the 13 albums the Jacksons released for Motown between 1969 and 1975. From the studio window he watched ordinary children playing, and would “always cry from loneliness.”[2]

Jackson is often described as a Peter Pan trying to recapture a lost childhood. Whether or not this is so, he does appear to have behaved inappropriately with children. Although he was never proved to have molested them, his acquittal was never a satisfactory outcome for the right-wing tabloids, nor did it spare him the abuse of those who assumed him guilty. He was himself a victim of abuse, from his ambitious father, the recording industry, and those keen to sit in judgement upon his private life.

The most striking outward expression of his troubles was his appearance. Jackson has been criticised for turning to plastic surgery to make him increasingly resemble a white person. His own claim was that he had the skin condition vitiligo. Perhaps he did, but this surely can’t be the whole story: the cosmetic surgery which gave him a narrower nose and thinner lips had nothing to do with his pigmentation. Rather than blaming Jackson, however, we should be asking what were the racial attitudes that caused him such anxiety over his identity? Whether Jackson should have handled the issue differently is a debate for the black community, which has preferred on the whole to stress his contribution to culture.

Likewise, Jackson is not ultimately to blame for the excesses of his celebrity cult. Jackson’s former publicist, Michael Levine, commented, ‘a human simply can not withstand this level of prolonged stress.’ The list of casualties in music, film and other arts is long — Amy Winehouse and Pete Doherty are the obvious contemporary examples. The problem lies less with artists than with capitalism and its commodification and exploitation of them and their art. Michael Jackson’s talent was distorted by a context of abuse, racism and commercialism. No doubt he always had anxieties, as we all do, but his celebrity exacerbated them until they took over his life and career.

Despite that, Jackson was the most influential pop performer since Elvis Presley and gave pleasure to millions of people across the world. How he would have developed in a free, fair and equal society is something we can never know.

[1] Comparison of the blanket coverage of this one death, when the stabbing of a Muslim woman by a racist on 1 July was met with indifference, tells us a great deal about current attitudes in society. The BBC item in my link does not even trouble to record the date of her death.
[2] Obituary, The Guardian Friday 26 June 2009.