When the video to Thriller first came out in the early 1980’s one of the record shops in my home town put a television set in its window showing it on a constant loop. This rapidly drew a sizable crowd, each member of which was held in place by the fascination of watching a performance, and a performer, that seemed to be being beamed to earth from another and much stranger planet.
On the Tuesday of this week the world said goodbye to Michael Jackson, the architect of that spellbinding performance with a memorial concert that combined the glitz of a Vegas casino opening with the solemnity of a state funeral. Indeed since his death two weeks ago the eulogies attesting to his brilliance as a performer and his qualities as a man have reached such heights of hyperbole it must have come as a surprise to many people present that his casket wasn’t preceded into the auditorium by a rider-less horse with the fallen hero’s boots placed backwards in the stirrups.
As it was mourners around the world had to content themselves with a slick floor show and a tearful eulogy delivered by Jackson’s 11 year old daughter Paris, who said: ‘I just wanted to say, ever since I was born, Daddy has been the best father you could ever imagine,’ sentiments any child should be free to express about a departed parent, but not, perhaps ones that stand up to adult scrutiny in light of his somewhat eccentric approach to parenting.
Speaking about Jackson’s well eccentricity, a product, we are told of his fame and lack of a normal childhood and a reliable meal ticket for the tabloid press for the past two decades his brother Marlon told the audience: ‘We will never, never, understand what he endured,’ and added ‘maybe now the world will leave you alone.’
Some hope! Tuesday’s elaborate funerary farce was more about burnishing a legend than marking the passing of a life, after all a in the kingdom of pop a dead monarch can rack up more in the way of income than a living one.
At least he can if his legend in managed properly, if all the awkward mistakes and personal failings that make up an individual’s character, whether he is famous or not, are neatly ironed out, leaving behind, in Jackson’s case, a back catalogue of catchy, if slightly dated, bubblegum pop songs and the image of an eternal child bruised by the cruelty of the adult world.
All well and good, show business is the destination of choice for consumers who want to abandon reality you might say, apart from the fact that the reality of Jackson’s life and the squalid decade that preceded his death is the most important part of the story. They are an exemplar of how fame and wealth corrupt individuals and those around them. There must have been someone in Jackson’s entourage with the wit to say dangling your baby son out of a hotel window isn’t the sort of thing a responsible parent does; or that having inappropriately intimate friendships with young boys is no way to recapture your own lost childhood. Nobody did though because everyone was on the payroll and nobody wanted to risk their salary by being honest.
Perhaps by allowing others, through a willingness to remove the roseate glasses when they remember his life and career, to recognise the corrosive effects of fame and fortune is the one good thing that could come out of the wasted life of Michael Jackson.
It won’t happen though; it won’t happen because despite the fact that he was more astute than his tabloid image ever gave him credit for being, Jackson with his eccentricity and his well publicised slide from talented performer into public madness created the template for modern fame. We can see it in the elevation of poor helpless Susan Boyle to the position of being a national treasure and the delight the media took in her fall from grace; it was there in the tributes paid following the death of Jade Goody which neatly wrote out of her story little details like her lack of talent and involvement in a racist incident broadcast on national television.
Its telling, perhaps, that Jackson chose to call his Californian ranch Neverland since like Peter Pan there was always something a little sinister about him, in rejecting the cares of the adult world he also rejected its responsibilities and that, however hard we try to pretend otherwise, isn’t a recipe for preserving innocence; it’s a recipe for chaos.