Sunday, July 5, 2009

Getting Back to Speed, I Hope

One reason -- at least it's the excuse I've made for myself -- that I haven't been writing much is that I haven't felt qualified to have much of an opinion about the big recent media events. One reason it's not really an excuse is that there have been other things going on closer to home that I could have written about. But, as usual, as the hoopla dies down, I begin catching up. Sorry I'm so late, I know the whole world has been waiting for me to comment on these things.

Take the death of Michael Jackson. I hadn't really paid much attention to his career since Thriller, though I'd noticed the child-abuse trials and the latter paparazzi madness. I hadn't heard any music by him that gave me the urge to buy it, and the videos I saw didn't help. I don't like the quasi-military drag he affected, the marching steps in some of the dance numbers, the attempts to look tough when in fact he was apparently a very gentle person. Even gentle people get angry, of course, but he never could make it look convincing in front of a camera.

And Jackson had plenty to be angry about. We'll probably never know the full truth about his relations with children, for example, though now that he's dead and so many of them have grown up it should be possible to hear their sides of it. Maybe some of them will come forward. There's no doubt now that the 1993 trial was a put-up job, an attempt at extortion by some shady people who -- even leaving Jackson out of it -- were willing to put accusations of molestation into their children's mouths and subject them to a media circus. Well, given Jackson's wealth at the time, I suppose the potential rewards seemed worth it, to the parents. But to this day, though Jackson was acquitted by the jury as the prosecution's case fell apart, a good many people take it for granted that he was guilty. The scumbag Michael Musto, for example, reports a stupid mechanical joke by Joan Rivers, and then drools over one of Jackson's now grown-up accusers. Even Greg Tate, a writer I've long respected, can't resist a dig or two in a mostly thoughtful piece:
Of course, Michael's careerism had a steep downside, tripped onto a slippery slope, when he decided that his public and private life could be merged, orchestrated, and manipulated for publicity and mass consumption as masterfully as his albums and videos. I certainly began to feel this when word got out of him sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber or trying to buy the Elephant Man's bones, and I became almost certain this was the case when he dangled his hooded baby son over a balcony for the paparazzi, to say nothing of his alleged darker impulses.
As I indicated earlier, I haven't done the homework to have a fully informed opinion of my own, but (largely thanks to Tate's article) I watched Jackson's 1993 interview with Oprah Winfrey (starting here at Youtube), and see no reason to take the tabloids' word against his that he didn't sleep in a hyperbaric chamber or try to buy the Elephant Man's bones. At least dangling the baby for the paparazzi took place in public, so that at least is certain, but what did it mean? The more important question, while we're on the subject of "darker impulses," is why people clearly want to believe such things. No matter how thoroughly some falsehoods are debunked, large numbers will hang on to them, and Tate shows that this extends to the eddicated classes.

On the previous page Tate wrote:
I have always wanted to believe that Michael was actually one of the most secretly angry Black race-men on the planet. I thought that if he had been cast as the Iraqi nativist who beat the shit out of Marky Mark in Ridley and Russell's Three Kings while screaming, "What is the problem with Michael Jackson? Your sick fucking country makes the Black man hate his self," Wahlberg would have left the set that day looking like the Great Pumpkin. I have also come to wonder if a mid-life-crisis Michael was, in fact, capable and culpable of having staged his own pedophilic race-war revival of that bitterly angry role? Especially during those Jesus Juice–swilling sleepovers at his Neverland Plantation, again and again and again? I honestly hope to never discover that this was indeed the truth.
I mean, what the fuck is up with that? It looks to me like Tate is projecting his own murky "pedophilic race-war" fantasies onto Jackson, which I guess is what celebrities are for, but what the fuck!? When someone says he honestly hopes to never discover that his fantasies about a celebrity are the truth, you know he wants his suspicions to be vindicated. This is the kind of concern-trolling I associate with right-wingers, not liberal intellectuals like Tate. But then I have to remember that Tate went off the deep end over Jackson as far back as 1987. (Let me credit him anyway, if only for sending me to look for the Winfrey interview and the "They Don't Really Care About Us" video, which along with "Jam" to some extent renewed my respect for MJ.)

It's now well-established, I gather, that Jackson's whiteface appearance after the mid-80s was due to the skin condition vitiligo, yet it still bothered a lot of people. And even to me, I admit, the makeup he used to cover the patchiness seems excessive, along with the hair-straightening. Why not use dark makeup, instead of making himself look like a bust of Nefertiti or a silent-movie star? But as he told Winfrey, show-business people play with their appearance all the time, so why shouldn't he? I suppose one of the reasons why people, especially black ones, found it difficult to deal with his changing appearance was that he had been so beautiful before, not just as a child but as a young man.

Another factor in the hysteria about Jackson was his effeminacy. In the interview with Winfrey, his body language as he enters the room, the sweep of his hair, are reminiscent of a young Lauren Bacall. All traces of inner-city accent are gone from his voice (though you can hear it in the old clips with young Michael played between Oprah segments), and the timbre and cadences make Prince Rogers Nelson seem butch by comparison. On the one hand, Jackson could never have stayed the beautiful child of his early career, but on the other he would never become the macho thug so many of his straight male fans wanted him to be.

It wasn't just that he wasn't macho, though -- he was almost girlish, and that, combined with his made-up appearance, drove many straight boys crazy. (Not so much straight women or most children -- who, despite the endless media depictions of Jackson as a predatory molester, apparently never stopped loving him or began fearing him.) After his death, I found a reference to some boy yammering about Jackson grabbing "his nonexistent crotch" while dancing; of course the whole crotch-grabbing thing is a sign of a certain insecurity to begin with, except when Madonna does it, but I'd often heard variations on that line before. Jackson's crotch was surely not non-existent (accounts of his endowment, verified by police investigation, circulated during the molestation scandals); these boys were terrified that such a girlyman might turn out to be hung, not for the sake of The Children but from anxiety for their own tender rosebuds. Yet when I think about the many thousands of children killed by governments around the world, most especially my own to this day, I can't help thinking there's something false in the ranting and the jokes about Jackson: even if he had molested those children, he wouldn't have done nearly as much harm to kids as any single American President in his lifetime, none of whom are routinely called child-killers. It also occurs to me that the scandals around him erupted at about the same time as the Satanic Ritual Abuse witch hunts of the 80s and early 90s, which were also fraudulent media circuses. Something is terribly wrong when I find Stanley Crouch making more sense, and being less homophobic, than Greg Tate.

Michael Jackson is not, never will be, in my personal pantheon, but many people were paying attention to his greatness all along. Like Fred Astaire or Michael Jordan, to whom Jackson has fairly been compared, his brilliance is in areas that don't resonate much for me. But it doesn't matter; for uncountable numbers of people, he was one of the most important artists of the 20th century. Whether he matters like that to me just doesn't matter.

(image credit)