Poor Michael Jackson.
Even though I was never a fan of the man, I have to feel empathy for a short life that was largely devoid of happiness. But I’ve come to view him in a larger context, because in a way, he was a symbol of an America that went wrong.
He represents the unhealthy growth of the cult of celebrity in a country that has become increasingly divorced from reality. This is what leads to pathetic contestants on shows like American Idol to literally sob if the judges don’t pick them. The attainment of celebrity will give their barren lives some kind of meaning.
For many Americans, empty of self worth or satisfaction with the attainment of reasonable and worthy goals, celebrity and its trappings are a kind of illness. It’s not enough anymore for millions of people to live a simple and clean life. Life needs deification and thus validation, from fans and worshippers and sycophants. If the fans can’t have this high, this thrill of celebrity for themselves, they can at the very least experience it vicariously by screaming at their icons, those in whom fate and luck changing morality have chosen to serve as popular culture figureheads.
Jackson lived this life, on top of it. Like many previous celebrities, when he got to the top, he found the view wasn’t worth the struggle. Like Marilyn Monroe, his fame became in fact a curse. He was seldom happy with it.
Jackson had two lives, two alter egos. There was his own life, his own sense of himself as a mere mortal human being, who just like you and I, has to wake up every day and go to the bathroom. This Michael Jackson was withered and small. And then there was his other side, his public persona, his life in the limelight of adulation and attention, as a performer, an icon. This side was gigantic, needing to be maintained, to be developed, stroked and furthered, existing on falsehoods, a truly Herculean task that would exhaust and expend the sensibilities of anyone.
The need to keep this image of himself young and talented and the best, the king of pop, the need to not slip from being the king, became like a mountain on his shoulders.
And all he could do was hurt. He turned to pain killing drugs to survive. But he was just reflecting the time in which he lived.
Millions of Americans turn to drugs to fade the pain, to be happy, to be up, filled with energy, always temporarily. We’re a nation of drug users, over the counter, scribbled on prescription notes, or illegal. Where Americans 100 years ago might be more inclined to live with the pain and boredom that sometimes accompanies any lived life, to take it, Americans today want to avoid it, anything unpleasant, by taking a pill.
We’re a nation of junkies.
If stoic indifference to pain is a sign of courage, and many say it is, then we’ve increasingly become a nation of cowards, who try to mask and hide from reality.
Jackson was simply perhaps an unwitting symbol for it all.
In the end, Jackson, like Elvis and Marilyn, couldn’t stand it anymore. It was simply too much. The need to always be beautiful in the public eye despite the grotesque reality of looking like a sun-glassed skeleton, the need to curry the phony image he himself had created, and the troubled American society, lonely, barren, devoid of self worth, needing desperately to believe in and worship that image.
It all became a Frankenstein. A monster who had him by the throat. He had to get out. This was the only way.
There will be other Michael Jacksons in the future with different unique talents to satisfy the always changing insatiable demands of public taste. But the reasons we exalt and deify and promote these people the way we do, and the end result, should tell us something troubling about ourselves. Something, that like Michael, we don’t want to admit.