Originally posted on June 25, 2009
The Multitude Killed the Video Star
But I am invented too for your entertainment and amusement. And you, poor creatures, who conjured you out of the clay? Is God in show business too?
–"Arthur Frayne", Zardoz
We played the grooves off of that record. My girlfriend had Michael Jackson's Off The Wall on vinyl. For a post-adolescent white trash burnout, steeped in rock and leavened in punk and new wave, listening to something so mainstream felt downright subversive. But it would have taken a deliberate act of cultural bigotry to dismiss that album. Not that I pretend to be free of such bias; selective cultural inhibition is always operative in each of us, not only in determining what we won't allow, but what which we force upon, ourselves. Witness installation art, postmodern architecture, public sculpture. It is not by accident that the more public the work the more deliberately it offends reason and beauty; if you live in a major city, there's probably more than one monument to aspirational credulity within walking distance.
Later Jackson would transcend the simple genius of his early career with the Thriller album. The unmatched commercial success of Thriller was due mostly to its associated videos. Jackson's innovation of employing experienced filmmakers using production values previously unseen in that still raw art form would pay off in orders of magnitude. But something was lost. The Thriller video struck me, as everyone around me, with its technical wizardry. But privately I couldn't help noticing how glittering and trite it all was. While achieving something new by aspiring to music-as-cinema, it was still overrated as music and not very good as cinema. Michael Jackson, for me, was over and done with. But I was glad, with a pretentious snobbery I've yet to escape, that I was maintaining a healthy critical distance from what I saw as soulless commercialism. I was still deluded in thinking that music should remain immediate and a little raw, not co-opted. I still harbor that hopeless delusion, contrary to all experience. It was always just show business, emphasis on business. The trick is to discard the pointless bias against business, as such. Easier said than done.
Michael Jackson was not the first superstar, but he may be the first to publicly renounce personhood itself in favor of renown. Michael Jackson didn't lose his individuality, he discarded it as a hindrance to celebrity. What was always unnerving about him was the absence behind the mystique. He did not start out as a "personality", real or fabricated; there was never anything there to begin with beyond the remarkable talent. Through the years I've become convinced that the absence of personality, and eventually the grotesquerie that was offered in its place, amplified that talent. We never got to know him, even as we watched him grow up. It wasn't just that he was private--lots of celebrities are "private"--it's that he deliberately crafted a persona without personhood. He cobbled together a few cliches he found romantic--the eternal child as a result of being robbed of childhood, the lonely genius, the besieged eccentric--all bathetic in their self-pitying grandiosity. Michael Jackson made himself into a comic caricature of egomania.
He refused even to accept the limits of nature, treating his physical body as if it were as malleable as his public persona. Had he been less delusional, and perhaps more ably befriended by those around him, he might have been made to see that neither of these things were very much within his control. Michael Jackson, in his repeated disfigurement under the knife, took on the vanity of the nation. In this, his most ridiculed aspect, that which is considered most "abnormal" about him, he is in fact most like us. He was, if anything, a pioneer in the realm of plastic surgery. When he started out on his gruesome way, the practice was far less common than it is now. Michael took on our vanity the way Christ takes on our sins.
After his ascension into the heavens of transformative celebrity his career itself became a work of art as imagined by the People and expressed through commerce--something both more and less than art, somehow. His public persona and the transcription of his private life in the press and on television, his representation across the modes of media, morphing along the way like his physical appearance, increasingly as grotesque caricature, became our ongoing work of performance art, with an individual as our canvas and clay. Even now, after his death, the performance continues. We are not done with Michael Jackson. He "lives" on, as he wished.
Michael's desperate megalomania and personal emptiness made him the ideal instrument of the multitude. There are many more to come. This is one more consequence of our newly global village. Contrary to our intuition, despite the boasts of those who celebrate the new placeless and personless order they are so eager to acquiesce to, the individual is losing if not lost. Individuality is less possible, more illusory than ever. Those who manage to escape the ground of obscurity for the heavens of celebrity will light this new reality as they burn out--like stars. No longer does the artist conceive for the People, but he is conceived by the People. Poor Michael Jackson, both brilliant and simple, cunning but callow, never had a chance. Whoever he was.