The early death of Princess Diana of Wales was a uniquely British tragedy, involving as it did a young and beautiful woman thrown into a crusty, stolid and obsolete environment that could only crush her character and suffocate her spirit. From the day Diana – a headstrong, impetuous, but essentially compassionate young woman – married the British heir to the throne, her fate was sealed. Even if her body had not been mangled in a horrible crash, her soul would surely have atrophied. Either way, she was doomed to be a lifeless corpse.
In a very different way, Michael Jackson is the archetypal American tragedy, destined not to die an early death like his friend Diana, or even his idol Elvis, but to live on in squalid infamy, his reputation in tatters, appearing to the public as more beast than being. It is a quintessential story of corruption, of one man’s inability to avoid the hubris of super-stardom, a man crushed under the enormous weight of his own unparalleled talent.
Both the British aristocracy, born of blood, and American celebrity royalty, born of fame, are anachronisms. Man is not designed as innately superior to his peers, nor is he constructed to live as a god. While humility keeps humans grounded, institutionalized arrogance is a noxious poison that kills off all that is healthy in man. The aristocracy of birth and the celebrity of fame both lead to a hollow and suffocating narcissism. But whereas the curse of the British aristocracy is to live disingenuously and hypocritically with a fraudulent mask of propriety, the sin of American celebrity is precisely the opposite – it is to live with one’s sins bared for all the world to see. To be a celebrity is to live in a glass house with all the world throwing stones.
The British aristocracy plays out their lives behind high walls and in secretive palaces. The American celebrity aristocracy, by contrast, plays out their roles in front of millions of people on concert stages and TV sets. British royalty tries to hide its discretions and feigns embarrassment at its sins. American celebrities, by contrast, become more famous through theirs.
This, it turns out, was the fateful calculation of Michael Jackson’s life. He took the celebrity calculus to an extreme, becoming convinced that the stranger he became, and the more controversial he was perceived to be, the more noticed he would become. An endless stream of bizarre stories emanated from his camp: that he slept in a hyperbaric chamber, that his favorite companion was a chimp, that he purchased the bones of the elephant man. Plastic surgery did the rest. Michael was transformed from talented boy-wonder to a human freak. Weirdness was not something Michael Jackson merely embraced. He poured all his creativity into it.
Michael Jackson is a modern morality tale of where celebrity at-any-cost must perforce end up. Well before the concept was even invented, Michael Jackson became America’s first reality TV star. His was “The Truman Show” come true. And like every reality TV star, fame chewed him up and spit him out, leaving a sad and hollow shell of something that once resembled a man. To be sure, Michael got a full hour rather than just 15 minutes of fame. But the overexposure to the camera’s lights made him wither under its power until he had shriveled up and even his undeniable talent could no longer redeem him.
Now, Michael Jackson has everything he ever wanted. He wanted to be the foremost celebrity in the world and that is what he has become, his upcoming trial guaranteed to make him even more famous than the Beatles. But while some pay with their soul for a place in eternity, Michael paid with the very image of being a man.
It is sad that as his trial commences America exhibits little sympathy for Michael Jackson. To see what Michael has done to himself – the utter disfiguration, the teetering near bankruptcy, the squandering of his precious gifts – would normally have elicited some measure of compassion. Even Martha Stewart was shown sympathy after her arrest and conviction. But to elicit pity, one must first be perceived to be human. And in the eyes of the public, Michael has become pure caricature, more mannequin than man.
Martha Stewart could never be completely hated because she was never completely loved. Strong emotions can be flipped, and this is precisely what happened in the case of Michael Jackson. The public once loved him. They grew up with him and in their eyes he was always a boy, an innocent and fun-loving man-child. In his shyness they believed in his innocence. In his naivet? they still remembered their own youth. In seeing him surrounded by children, they were convinced that he was an adolescent at heart.
Now, they have turned on him because hell hath no fury like a public duped. Peter Pan had become Peter porn. The public now maintains that all along Michael was not innocent, but corrupt and cunning. Neverland was built not as a shrine to youthful precociousness, but as a lair to lure the young and unsuspecting. With Michael they thought they were getting a choirboy. But instead, they’ve concluded, they’ve gotten a master manipulator.
As for me, I still believe Michael is innocent of molestation. But it almost doesn’t matter now, because the inspiration he once provided to so many has all disappeared. He has become the very thing he once feared: ordinary.
I used to often tell Michael that without an authentic connection to God, he would never survive life as a celebrity. But celebrities don’t listen to ordinary mortals. And they don’t need God, since they are gods themselves.
I remember that Michael once told me how he had dreamed of being romantically involved with Princess Diana. Perhaps he thought these two lonely and misunderstood people would live together happily ever after, comforted by their mutual sense of isolation. But things like a happy ending happen mostly in the kind of movies that Michael so loves. Michael’s life, by contrast, has become all too real.