Geoffrey Kirk on the cautionary tale of the death of Michael Jackson and what it tells us about the preoccupations of modern America
Fairy stories, as Stephen Sondheim demonstrated in his brilliant compilation Into the Woods, only end happily ever after because they end. Project the plot beyond the extant narrative and there are alarming possibilities – the Giants wife comes after Jack; Rapunzel’s prince shows himself a serial philanderer; and Red Riding Hoods woodcutter turns out to be a convicted paedophile.
What, I wonder, would J.M. Barrie have made of the shadowside of Never-land which we have all been witnessing for years and which has just reached its climax with the untimely death of Peter Pan? And will America ever wake up to the wider implications of its sick pop culture?
Just at a time when the generation which can remember Elvis as the bloated drug-sodden incontinent which he became at the end is reaching its dotage, another image is presented for contemplation: Jacko in his gold-plated coffin at the centre of a mawkish celebration of Black Culture.
The Michael Jackson story, for all the extravagant stage pyrotechnics, is in the end about the three things which matter most in modern American society: Race, Money and Sex.
The racial narrative is strange and convoluted. Music, of course, has been the way for many American blacks out of poverty and oppression. So it was for the Jackson Five. Except that the way out involved a degree of child abuse which Michael spoke of many times. That abuse resulted, as abuse so often does, in self-abuse.
A good-looking, exceptionally talented black man who had every reason to be proud of himself and to take pride in his people, somehow turned his back on his own identity. By expensive surgery he tried to turn himself into a whitey Money was no object; but neither money nor science would do the trick. The result (which surely cannot have been gratifying to Michael, however desperate his desire to expunge his birth identity) was grotesque in the extreme. And so – by what means is not yet entirely clear -he acquired three blond, white-skinned children, who proved (or seemed to prove) that genetically he was what he longed to be.
How Black America can ignore this cautionary tale, how Jesse Jackson and the family of Martin Luther King could be swept up into the sordid razzmatazz which was the memorial concert, are question that must be asked.
At the height of his popularity, Michael Jackson Inc. had an income and expenditure account comparable with a medium-sized African country. The operation, despite the spin about children’s charities, saving the planet and artistic integrity, was all about cash. And so complex were the transactions and arrangements that it will be some time before the size of the estate is finally established. There are rumours of enormous debt; but where there is a will there are claimants. It is clear that family and other hangers-on do not intend to be without a dividend.
Jackson spent prodigiously in a great American tradition. Neverland was his San Simeon. But unlike Hearst, who was seeking a place for himself in the history of Western culture, Michael was buying back his own childhood. Americans have a propensity to buy themselves the past they never had: witness the radial chapels of St John the Divine, New York or the flying buttresses of Washington Cathedral. That, in those parts, is what money is for. So Jackson spent like a Rockefeller or a Vanderbilt.
The paradox is that Michael, like some legendary gun-slinging hero, may prove to be worth more dead than alive. His father and brothers are intent on rebuilding Neverland, with the golden coffin of the still unburied Peter Pan at the heart of it. Then they will sit back and watch the cash registers roll, while Barrie turns in his grave.
And finally, there is the sex. Did he do it? Perhaps the answer is as irrelevant as it would be uninteresting. The accusations of paedophilia will not now be proved or disproved; though the paternity of his children might.
The fact is that Jackson’s sexuality (so much a part of his stage act) was strangely clinical and androgynous. The diamante G-strings over tight shiny jumpsuits, and the reflexive clutching of the crotch, were the attributes of a mere marionette, a male Barbie with flesh as plastic as the prototype. Michael Jackson was the live equivalent of cartoon pornography. To such a character it would be impossible to attribute hot lust or real love. He was sex commoditized. As such it seems unkind to speculate further.
There is now a stereotypical public reaction to the death of celebrity: the flowers pinned to railings, the candle-lit vigils, the ritual accusations of homicide and conspiracy. It is clear that in the Therapeutic Society we are all victims now: corporate grief is most vocal at the death of the maimed. Jackson’s death (and the reaction to it), it should be remembered, was immediately compared to Diana, not Valentino.
However we try to knit up the ravelled sleeve of faerie – she as the Lady of the Lake, he as the Prince of Neverland – we will never learn the lessons until, as Sondheim pointed out, we can think beyond the conventional ending. Only then can a fairy tale become a cautionary tale.