Written July 3rd, 2009
Somewhere in his unusual and brief life, Michael Jackson, a man made in the image and likeness of God, determined he would become a commodity: The Man Who Wasn’t There according to the New Republic’s John McWhorter. John’s column wasn’t harsh. It was, rather, an exercise in respectful perplexity. McWhorter was simply recognizing the product Jackson’s parents intended him to be rather than the person God created Michael to be.
Lest any doubt remain about Michael’s status as a commercial property, let his father lay claim. When a CNN reporter asked his father, Joe, shortly after Michael’s death, “How are you doing sir, how’s the family holding up?” Joe Jackson replied, “I’m great. My family’s doing pretty good. It has been really tough. Remember we just lost the biggest star, the biggest superstar in the world.” Most fathers would have simply said they had lost a son.
Undeterred, the CNN reporter asked if he’d like to share anything about his son and his legacy. Joe Jackson throttled the tender moment and immediately squeezed in a promotional spot for his new production company proving that even the sudden, shocking death of his son couldn’t soften the stage parent from hell. Michael Jackson had been parented to be sold. (see video below this commentary – 3:15 in)
And Joe Jackson got what he wanted. Michael Jackson may be the greatest entertainer of western pop music history. Thirteen Grammies, 13 #1 singles as a solo artist, 800 million record sales worldwide making him the greatest selling male solo artist. His influence is almost unrivalled. Without Michael Jackson there’d be no Brittany Spears or Justin Timberlake. What Elvis had been to the 50’s, the Beatles to the 60’s, disco to the 70’s, Michael Jackson was to the 80’s.
At the time of his death he was just two weeks from beginning 50 concerts in London intended to be his “curtain call”, his “This is It” performance. He needed something “bad.” The self declared King of Pop’s reputation, always “off the wall”, had declined since his 2005 acquittal on child molestation charges to the point where his name was most commonly used as a punch line. Could he once again be a “thriller?”
Years earlier, after getting enthused by a biography of P.T. Barnum, Jackson handed a copy of the book to his staff proclaiming that he would not produce but rather become the “greatest show on earth.” He, his image, now needed refurbishing. He was also in profound debt. He needed to show the world that he was still “invincible” and “dangerous.”
For decades it had no longer been about the dancing, the music or the lyrics. It wasn’t about CDs or concerts. His life had become the performance. More marketable than any intellectual property he could produce or talent he could muster, he had become the item for public consumption.
As Daniel Boorstin has written, well-crafted images whether in politics, advertising or entertainment always bear an ambiguous relationship to reality. Was Michael Jackson- the product- young or old, black or white, male or female, man or child, pedophile or philanthropist, straight or gay? Was he clean and sober or addled by drug and drink, a robust athletic dancer or a frail waif, a Peter Pan innocent or a shrewd impresario?
Like Boorstin’s “image”, Jackson’s relationship to reality was ambiguous, unclear, outside our normal categories. In 1995, a biographer pressed him for details about his background. “Just tell people, I’m an alien from Mars,” he teased. He was a master of imagery who seemed to dissolve tragically into a comic icon of his own device. His trademark blend of the bizarre and the familiar became, paradoxically, as easily recognized, digitized and branded as Mickey Mouse: The man reduced to cartoon.
Show business is of course about fantasy, escape, diversion and other entertainers often confuse persona and person. Kirk Douglas accused John Wayne of forgetting he wasn’t a gunslinger or military hero but only played one. Other performers have changed identities at different times in their careers. David Bowie (itself an alias) became Ziggy Stardust and then the Thin White Duke. But these were obvious disguises of make-up and costume. For Jackson each identity change came at the tip of the surgeon’s knife. The Ziggy Stardust persona could be shed and David Bowie return. But Michael Jackson had become a synthetic fabrication.
He had become the act. He hung onto his wispy falsetto voice in regular conversation long after his voice should have matured. He created Neverland, his make-believe world that was a theme park rather than a home. His first marriage strategically united the self-declared King of Pop with the daughter of the King of Rock and Roll Even his “friendships” with Elizabeth Taylor and Diana Ross seemed to conceal rather than reveal who he was. For awhile his closest “friend” was Bubbles, the diapered chimp who slept in a crib in Michael’s bedroom. At least they spoke regularly.
Michael Jackson wasn’t just a player within, but a product of, our illusion generating industries. Daniel Boorstin’s 1961 book, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America exposed our arts of self-deception, how we hide reality from ourselves.
We create an electronic cocoon of images, a thicket of unreality to stand between us and the hard facts of life. We comfort ourselves by stroking this skin of fantasy because we suffer from “extravagant expectations” of:
1) what the world holds (how much news and novelty exists, how many heroes there are, how exotic the nearby can be, how familiar the exotic can become and
2) of our power to shape the world (of our ability to create events when there are none, to make heroes when they don’t exist, to be somewhere else when we haven’t left home, to turn a symphony into mood music, a novel into a movie, to invent our standards and then pretend to respect them as if they had been revealed or discovered.)
Michael was aware that celebrities are created to please, comfort, fascinate, and flatter us. That they are dispensable products that can be produced and displaced in rapid succession. Just look at the Billboard charts and find this season’s angry white chick or the wholesome scrubbed-face boy band du jour. He had had it all and long ago he wanted more. He wanted to live forever as the greatest show on earth and we paid him handsomely to try. But he was made to image God who was to be his final audience. Only God knows, but Michael Jackson seems to have fabricated himself as an image for a purely mundane audience. He kicked against the goads of created reality and drove himself until his body just couldn’t take it any longer, crushed in the misdirected quest for immortality.
In contrast, Christians are supposed to seek immortality in imaging the God who created them. The Hebrew psalmist had ironic words for the imagemakers of his day and ours. The idols only promise futility. “They have eyes but see not. They have throats but speak not. Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.” The idol, said James Russell Lowell, takes the measure of the worshipper. We become like the images we create and worship.
Christians believe that human beings are created in the image and likeness of God in order to do just that: image God, reflect His character. This is the imaging in which we can find satisfaction, fulfilling our nature and purpose. Michael had written that he often felt God’s presence in the dance. I believe him. But I suspect that presence left when he ceased the dance and merely adopted the pose. When we posture as false images we displace God and deny the purpose for which we were created, to be the only legitimate idol, the image, God’s image.
How do we image God? In many ways, but Dick Keyes tells a story that takes on particular poignancy when applied to Jackson’s death. His “four year old son announced, ‘Daddy, I am like God.’ I said, ‘Hmmm..really? In what way?’ while at the same time my mind was racing, wondering where in the world this idea had come from, and where it might be headed. He blindsided me with his response, ‘Yes, it’s because I love you even when you’re bad!’”
Keyes goes on: “It may that in the love of a child we get one of our best images of the wholehearted, unconditional love of God. In the love of a child we can sometimes see love’s uncomplicated, uncalculating, and passionate expression. Adult love is often so intertwined with the personal agenda of the one doing the loving that one longs for the unsophistication of the child’s love.”
As one London commentator asked: “Who stole the soul of the boy from Indiana?” Who was Michael Jackson, made in the image and likeness of God? When women sell their bodies we call them prostitutes. Those who traffic in human flesh are pimps. What do we call those who sell their souls or those who make merchandise of human selves? Whatever we call them, may God have mercy on their souls and upon all of us who create the commercial environment in which they thrive to our mutual destruction.
“(Christ) is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross”
– Paul to the church at Colossae, chapter one, verse 15ff.