Thursday, July 09, 2009

On Michael Jackson

I've been working on a chapter on autobiographical performance art and the performativity of identity, and so even though I am loathe to contribute to the avalanche of discourse on the subject, it has honestly been difficult not to think of Michael Jackson, who Margo Jefferson, author of On Michael Jackson, has called "a post-modern shape-shifter." And so despite my better judgment, another inquiry into the meaning of Michael Jackson.

In a recent article in the post, Jefferson offers up her eulogy, ending with the overblown "and the rest is silence." And while it feels odd to compare the gravitas of Hamlet's death to Jackson's, one thing becomes clear from this line: that what Hamlet and Jackson shared is deeply important: a theatrical, malleable conception of self-representation, one that their respective cultures could barely contain. And, like Hamlet's Denmark, we too needed to kill off our shape-shifter for our cultural narrative to make sense.

In short, we wanted Michael Jackson dead.

Now, I'll qualify that statement five ways from Thursday--I'm not saying that you, dear reader, had active or secret wishes that this person would suffer cardiac arrest. Rather, by "we" I mean a broader cultural we, and by "Michael Jackson" I mean the simulacrum, the icon of a human being we know truckloads about, but can hardly claim to know. His "reality," if such a thing could even be said to exist, is impossible to speculate on (Was the mediatized Jackson a simulacrum to himself? Perhaps).

What I am saying is that by dominant normate standards, our mainstream American culture could only tolerate Jackson's presence in our contemporary culture for so much longer. What he represented was so deeply subversive to a host of categories by which we order society--gender, race, sexuality, age--that his place in the common consciousness became increasingly sinister over the past thirty years. At the height of his popularity, there were merely the one-gloved queer insinuations, but then came the incongruous hetero-spectacle of his marriage to Lisa Marie Presley, and the unseemly conception, birth, and rearing of his children, all underscored by the whispers of pedophilia, culminating in actual legal action 2005 for sexual abuse.

By the time of his trial, his public persona was so confounding that (as one of my grad students pointed out to me) the Court TV reenactment of the trial cast a caucasian woman as Jackson.

I don't claim to know the facts of these incidents in Jackson's life, only that we tempered our cultural fascination with his compelling stage persona with an increasingly vicious expulsion from the real world of the freak whose sheer entertainment value challenged the very identities we use to arrange ourselves in the world.

That narrative of discipline, exclusion, and expulsion wouldn't otherwise seem to logically conclude in a massive spectacle of a funeral, one of the most elaborate we've seen in years. Yet this death was marked by an outpouring of praise and love for a figure who was as much a bogeyman dangling his children over the balcony (literally and figuratively) as for someone who sang and danced well, and sold a lot of music (and owned even more).

How do we explain that? To me, it seems not a mourning of his passing, but rather a kind of public celebration that this most compelling of figures can now be contained. It is almost a Greek tragedy in this way: that through expelling our hubristic tragic figure from our midst, we can only then purge the culture itself, and celebrate that even without the great man (or male impersonator, as Jefferson astutely suggests) we can continue. We can celebrate his life only in death, because that death puts him in his proper place in the social order. No longer able to force us to squirm at gender crossings, racial uneasiness, conflations of childhood and adulthood (I could hardly even say "manhood" as that is a performance that Jackson never quite gave us), Jackson can be called a great performer, an icon, whatever.

When his 1991 album Dangerous hit the shelves, Jackson was almost more punchline than a major persona. But he was still culturally dangerous in a way that few understood (and I do not mean in the narrow way that, say, fundamentalist Christians might have understood). For unlike any other postmodern celebrity who, like Madonna, has generally eased back into normative culture, Jackson was unwilling, or perhaps more likely, no longer able to rejoin the mainstream.

And so as a culture, we ridiculed, prodded, and disciplined him into seclusion and into more and more bizarre public iterations. Maybe we drove him to his early death. But now that he is dead, and only now, we can celebrate his life.

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