Jul 19, 2009

THE NEVERLAND ASCENSION

Fourteen days. I thought that was long enough to pay my respects to the fateful departed, Michael Joseph Jackson. I chose to remember him as he was at the height of his fame, through the famous photograph on the cover of the Thriller album, before he embarked, in the last two decades of his life, on a remarkable process of performance art comprising of extreme body modification and radical self-reinvention. For quite a while now, futurists have predicted a future in which celebrity became a true coin of the realm, concretized in Andy Warhol’s conjecture that in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes (hence “15 minutes of fame”). Warhol was only partly right: in our contemporary era, fame now accretes for much smaller intervals and celebrity is mutating fast into meta-celebrity, the condition of the already famous reflecting on the paradox of fame, enabled by a media besotted with inventing new contexts and subjects of fame, and by the rapacity of a general public in relentless pursuit of fame for no earthly reason at all.

It was already evident long ago that this relentless drive for newfound celebrity coupled with the minimalist context of fame itself (its increasing micro-temporality, i.e. the famous are increasingly superceded at an alarming rate by yet more pointless fame) will create an entirely new social relationship to the idea of celebrity. I had long predicted that in my lifetime, I’d live long enough to see a “virgin” offered up in live sacrifice at Yankee Stadium, with the rites broadcast live worldwide on all media formats. One assumes of course that such anachronisms as “virgins” would still exist in the fame-driven economies of a future in which broadcast media of all sorts focus mainly on reality TV. You can already see the slide starting in the “reality programming” offered to just about anyone you can imagine, most without any credible reason other than having done the most inane or horrendous thing, or having had such done to them. I avoid “reality TV” like the plague for that reason: I consider it a form of media contamination and a sure sign of the end of Western civilization—a modern day reinvention of the “Vomitorium” of Rome in the period of the decadence. No matter: it’s the future. We have no choice but to boldly go.

We may well revisit this historical epoch and realize that Michael Joseph Jackson was both at the beginning and end of a specific type of celebrity: his fame was anchored on solid achievements, and he personified how the relentless witch-hunt of media vampires who feed on the blood of celebrities (are you listening Gerardo Rivera?) can ultimately destroy even the most hardy. Michael made MTV a global platform; right around the time another Michael (Jordan in this instance) was making the NBA a global institution and cementing the feudal fortunes of the quintessential corporate exploiter--Nike. And this is how I remember Michael Jackson, as a supreme performer operating in a state of grace: the rapid spin forms of his dance, the flash of his outstretched white-gloved hand, and that uncanny moonwalk that spawned a whole new culture of popular dance. This was the Michael Jackson of the astonishing Thriller videos, perhaps the first truly significant music video in the history of the medium: an elfin entity walking on light, surrounded by the detritus of the ancient order of celebrity whose demise his video and plaintive songs heralded. I remember the endless footage of young girls collapsing at the sight of the Uberstar, and thinking about the impact of concentrated charisma, this uncanny ability to affect solid bodies without even touching them. This power was the chi of the ancient Shaolin masters, the “Force” of the Jedi; the inexorable power of unbridled energy crackling across space like lightning. You could see it in all images of Michael Jackson in this era, as he ascended to higher and higher triumphs. It seemed he could do no wrong or make any wrong move: the force was with him.

Of course, there was another side to this story: the inexorable cannibalization of a falling star. Michael fell hard, besieged by predatory lawsuits and unproven but extraordinarily horrible allegations. The same media that sang his praises to high heavens convened to feat off the carcass of his waning fame. I remembered watching an MTV program in which the hosts callously made fun of Michael Jackson and feeling really murderous rage at the station, for how easily they forgot how much they owed their success to the man they now mocked relentlessly. This is the Western World at the height of its own arc of triumph, busy consuming its own entrails in its quest for even greater titillation. I watched Michael decay and feared he would probably commit suicide at some point when it all became unbearable. He didn’t (at least I hope he didn’t) but I was right in one respect: there was no way Michael was going to live to a ripe old age. By the time he died, he had already beaten great odds in living for as long as he did. How do you sustain a creative life that flared like a nova? Ultimately even the sun consumes all its energy and dies: it is only a matter of time.

Above all, I remember the white glove, the primal marker of popular music for the 1980s generation. I ran a soundset for a while in my teens and used a white-gloved left hand as my signature style. Behind the high table, surrounded by the crude equipment that served early DJs in the late 1970s and very early 1980s, I’d acknowledge a good sequence of dancehall hits by raising my hand, so the crowd of dancers knew who was the DJ behind the rousing dancehall run. I remembered being quite astonished when I first saw Michael’s sequined white-gloved hand. I am sure I would have doubted the veracity of my own claim to have done the same thing much earlier, if I didn’t have that single picture of myself as a gangly youth wearing a left-handed glove to prove it.

Would future celebrities have the kind of cohesive global fame that Michael Jackson had? It was obvious that this was the first significant global media death of the Internet era. As news of Michael’s demise rippled across the world-wide-web, Internet portals buckled and threatened to collapse under the weight of data. Even the almighty Google portal scrambled to keep up. Michael’s death continues to break all mainline and online dissemination records and I was pleasantly surprised by the very positive memorials to the star that sprung from places no one would have thought to associate him with. And this in itself is something important: would there be enough fame to generate this kind of global identification in the future? It doesn’t seem so, since the Internet that was supposed to create global audiences have in fact fractured public space into more and more minimalist domains, in which individuals congregate with like-minded persons and celebrities occupy smaller and smaller niches. Of course, the future will always surprise us, but it seems to me that with Michael’s death, we have come to the end of the era of mega-celebrities. The fame of those who remain is incredibly dimmed by his passing.

To the fateful departed then, at the event horizon of Michael’s ascension to Neverland. The man is gone but there’ll yet be years of legal challenges to his will and endless cycles of litigation from jackals trying to dispossess his children of their inheritance. It is not often that carrion eaters chance on a feast of a lifetime: in the annals of celebrity, this is a feast of a dead elephant, a blue whale basting in its own blubber. Expect to have stories about Michael running right through the end of the year and beyond as “reporters” spin gold out of the dross of his family’s grief. It is the ultimate irony of life in the limelight that the famous are often more useful as news after their demise. But the inexorable truth is that Michael Joseph Jackson has gone on to his maker and is clearly beyond the reach of his detractors and well wishers alike. This is death’s reward, that the dead do not really care what we think of them and that the afterlife is nothing at all like we think it is. I know: I’ve been there and back. There is only one truth--man comes, man goes: earth abides. May his tortured soul finally rest in peace.