JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 27.6.09
ON MY COMPUTER SCREEN, courtesy of YouTube, the little figure flickers and sparkles, just a couple of inches high. The image is of Michael Jackson, singing his great hit Billie Jean – the one where the singer repeatedly denies paternity of a baby boy born to a girl he once knew – at the Tamla Motown 25th anniversary concert, back in 1985. In the video, Jackson is 27 years old, and probably at the height of his powers. His face is slim and sculpted, as though he might have had a nose-job here, a chin-tuck there; but the screen shows what by any measure is an electrifying performance of a brilliant song, given by a handsome young black guy with a tremendous gospel voice, a real gift for movement, and infinite star quality.
What happened to Jackson later is already showbiz history; the operations and self-mutilations, the slow bleaching of the skin, the accusations of child abuse, the pet chimpanzee, the Neverland Ranch, the strange marriages, and the uneasy family of children of uncertain parentage. Yet venture out onto the internet this weekend, into the social networking sites and music blogs, and you’ll find that among the online generation – which now includes a good half of the population under 50 – Jackson’s death, along with that of 70’s Charlie’s Angels star Farrah Fawcett, has simply overwhelmed all other topics of discussion. The tone is ambivalent, of course; an odd mix of awestruck hero-worship and ribald abuse, with even poor Farrah Fawcett attracting a measure of scorn for her determination to document and film her unglamorous final illness.
But that’s how our celebrity culture works: it contains a terrifying mix of the urge to worship, and the need to tear down and destroy. And in that sense, Michael Jackson has surely been the celebrity of celebrities, with a life almost designed to feed those contradictions. He was a songwriter and performer of terrific talent, adored by the millions of fans whose love he sought, as compensation for a miserably abusive chldhood. Yet at the same time, he was a tragic and dangerous mess of a man, apparently unable to live at ease with his face, his race, his gender, or his sexuality; or to survive the stress of trying – at the age of 50 – to live up to his own stupendous reputation as live performer, in a planned series of huge new London concerts.
So it’s perhaps worth asking, as a wave of vicarious grief and double-edged mourning sweeps the planet, whether these deaths might mark the beginning of the end of the near-hysterical age of celebrity through which we have lived. In one sense, of course, Jackson and Fawcett are old-fashioned celebrities, in that they actually achieved fame through their work, back in the 1970’s; today, a mere passing affair with someone on the celebrity circuit seems to be enough to guarantee star status.
But all the same, they have both been part of that landscape of celebrity that has emerged, over the last 30 years, as a vicarious replacement for the local community and family life that so many of us used to know, well within living memory; but which has been comprehensively fragmented by the turbo-charged social and economic changes of the last 40 years. As any schoolteacher will tell you, in a world where most ordinary social landmarks of status and belonging have gradually been eroded , fame and wealth stand out as the only significant measures of achievement and identity to which young people can aspire; hence an increasingly absurd intensity of identification with figures from Princess Diana to Jade Goody, Michael Jackson to David Beckham, who live lives completely beyond the experience of all but a tiny minority, and yet are somehow seen as close acquaintances, whose lives and deaths may mean more to us than those of close family members.
And the questions is this: that if our world is on the cusp of major change, with economic collapse and growing resource pressures forcing us to rediscover the value of social capital and human attachment, and perhaps of a more localised way of life, then is there perhaps a chance that we will stop needing our virtual celebrity narrative so much, and start giving the stars a break, in terms of intrusive pressure on their private lives?
The story could go either way, of course. Back in the 1930’s, when times were hard, Hollywood became a global dream factory of immense power, offering the huddled masses from Los Angeles to Luton a glittering escape from hard lives; the British economic upheavals of the 1970’s and 80’s spawned a generation lost in music, still crazy for the rough glamour of the old rebellious bands, a quarter of a century on. And whatever happens in our world over the next decade, we can be sure that the virtual realms of the internet – from Facebook to Second Life – will continue to challenge, complement or cut across more traditional forms of social connection and solidarity.
But I think it’s worth hoping, all the same, that the worst of our obsessive hunger for connection with the world of celebrity may begin to pass, as reality bites a little harder. At the very least, we might begin to ask of our stars that they do more than mate and reproduce and divorce, all under a hideous glare of intrusive “lifestyle” coverage; that they once again actually sing songs or tell stories that enrich and illuminate our lives. At his best – way back in the glittering 1980’s – Michael Jackson certainly achieved that. And for the rest – well, let’s hope that justice has been done, to everyone who encountered Jackson in his life; and that his troubled spirit, symbol of a nerve-wracked age of fame, can eventually rest in peace.