Great bifurcations: Michael Jackson’s posthumous roles and remainders

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Already a motion in the US Senate to declare Michael Jackson “an American legend and musical icon (and) a world humanitarian” has been blocked by Republican Peter King who said on Fox News and CNN that Jackson was an alleged pervert, child molester and paedophile. Beyond its interesting racial and party political context (Texan Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee represented Congress and the U.S. Black Caucus at the Jackson memorial on Tuesday) this moment of cultural politics says something important about memory and celebrity in a wider sense. Jackson is not the first hero in popular music to be disputed: on a smaller scale memorials for Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin were both challenged by their home towns. How then should we see this debate?

Writing about Elvis in 1990, Lynn Spigel opposed official and popular memory, arguing that official memory seeks to close down the meaning of a life, but popular memory (such as tabloid gossip) continually opens it up, creating a welter of stories in which elements of the star’s life become founding myths. Any moments of ambiguity about the star facilitate an endless stream of speculation and gossip. Here one example would be the genetic origin of Michael Jackson’s children: Were they really his? Was Debbie Rowe their biological mother or was she impregnated invitro? Who was the real father – his skin doctor? etc. Equally, Jackson’s sexuality and activities with children have always been in doubt.

It is important to realize that official and unofficial memory are both the vehicles for and results of different commodity markets. State institutions see Michael as a hegemonic figure as much as the tabloids that print revelations about him.

So was Michael a pervert or great entertainer? Maybe he was both. However, popular memory seems to have a hard time accepting the duality. Instead we are beginning to see a bifurcation: the emergence of two Michaels, each with its own shadow (or, in Lacanian terms, remainder). A good example of this was ITV’s recent decision to rebroadcast Martin Bashir’s extended interview documentary Living with Michael Jackson next week without the segment in which the singer argues for the appropriateness of ‘non-sexually’ sharing your bed with under-age boys. Is the channel appropriately celebrating a music hero or capitulating in the face of mass emotion supports that seeks to whitewash a celebrity criminal?

The media has such dilemmas because we increasingly unable as a society to separate cultural workers out from the contents of their work. While peers in the music industry can understand that, say, a songwriter can invent dramatic material which is totally unrelated to their private lives, audiences raised on the romantic myth of the artist have a tendency look for links between the two things. As the private lives of stars become commodities (commodities that they too manipulate), audiences are left to investigate a new distinction: the difference between the image and “the real man” (another phantom). Industry figures like Stevie Wonder and Quincey Jones could therefore happily separate the entertainer from the person, but the rest of the world could not.

This, then, is the irony: when a star dies their private life reaches rock bottom (at least in how we interpret it), yet their career reaches its peak. The renewed exposure of both their life-as-tragedy and their monumental work opens the floodgates for all manner of ambiguous readings, but it gradually extends the process of bifurcation too, as the “both / and” Michael – entertainer and potential child abuser – restlessly disappears under a growing need to simplify his legend. One wonders how the Neverland tour guides will cope!

On a ghoulish note, one way that cultural critics decided to close down the “both / and” reading of Michael was to see him as a ghost before he died, a reading which also fits in with the metaphysics of tabloid culture. On one hand Paul Morley said on BBC2′s Newsnight Review that Jackson was already gone: his finest musical work behind him and over by the 1990s, as the tabloid freaky took over to recycle remnants of the giant that once existed. Equally, Paul Burger of Sony said in Music Week that they had already lost Michael ten years ago. In parallel, press coverage of Jackson’s last days as paint him as a “frail” old man. Taking it to extremes, The National Enquirer this week discussed “The Shocking State of Michael’s Body”, anatomically breaking it into elements marking both his bodily abnormality (skeletal bodyweight, etc) and artificiality: wig, fake nose, pills in his stomach, surgical scars.

Pale as a corpse, in his last days Jackson was more than ever a ghost, fading from his musical achievements and public interactions, continually ghost-busted by the paparazzi. Despite the public’s interest in his live musical comeback, in tabloid culture it was still as if, by popular demand, the man in the mirror had swapped places with his monstrous role in Thriller, and now he was post-natural and – in Deleuzian terms – a body (of work) without organs.

Check this blog on the cultural myth of Michael Jackson.