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Michael Jackson and the Cult of Personality

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Michael Jackson

Thursday evening, I learned of the passing of Michael Jackson, dubbed by Elizabeth Taylor as the “King of Pop.”  And, since the passing of anyone in the public consciousness arouses memories of our own pasts and reminds each of us of his/her own mortality, I have to admit a passing interest in the story.  Yet, I do not believe that the media frenzy surrounding the story of Michael’s death is either justified or respectful.


Perhaps, it is simply a fact of modern American culture that the death of an entertainment icon supercedes news of the electoral turmoil in Iran, the growing nuclear threat posed by North Korea, the ongoing armed conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the continuing decay of the American economy and way of life.  Or perhaps, it is an escape from those harsh realities.  Regardless of its cultural roots, the death of a relatively youthful celebrity attempting to resurrect his career and image is too compelling a tale not to attract continuous coverage in our current ratings-driven, 24-hour per day cable news culture.


Michael Jackson’s life and career has been a study in contrasts.  Abused as a child by his father, Jackson has been a fixture in the public eye for almost four decades.  Gaining notoriety as a member of The Jackson 5 with brothers Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, and Marlon, Michael transitioned into a solo career in the early 1970’s.  With the 1982 release of “Thriller,” the world’s best selling recording of all time, his career peaked.


Jackson followed “Thriller” with two more modest commercial successes, “Bad” released in 1987 and “Dangerous” in 1991.  In 1988, he purchased land in California and erected “Neverland Ranch,” a 2,700 acre estate with Ferris wheels, a menagerie, and a movie theater.  While ostentatious residences are not unusual for the fabulously wealthy and, by the late 1980’s, Jackson was very wealthy indeed, “Neverland” was just an early indication of the unusual twists yet to come in a life that was surely far less than ordinary.


In the mid-80’s, Jackson was diagnosed with vitiligo, a dermatologic condition causing depigmentation in patches of skin.  That condition, along with lupus caused him to become sensitive to light.  In treating these conditions, his skin tone lightened and, with the application of makeup to even out the tone, gave him an almost ghostly pallor.  Add facial changes engendered by multiple cosmetic surgeries, and Jackson took on the appearance of an alien.


His appearance, however, was but one part of his peculiar persona.  Reclusive and almost childlike, Jackson behaved in public in a manner that can best be characterized as bizarre.  And, he appears not only to have enjoyed but also cultivated this image by disseminating fabricated information including that he slept in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber and that he had purchased the bones of Joseph Merrick, the famed “Elephant Man.”


Public image aside, Jackson’s private life appears to have been even stranger.  He invited young children to sleepovers with him at “Neverland” and shared a bed with some of them.  The 1993 charges of child abuse stemming from one incident were dropped for lack of evidence, but Jackson did pay a significant sum of money to the family of the boy involved.  In 2005, he was tried and acquitted of further sexual abuse allegations.  At one point, his older sister La Toya publicly declared him a “pedophile,” but later recanted her statement.


As a result of these allegations, Jackson’s image was tarnished and his fortune was lost.  At the time of his death, he was deeply in debt, although from outward appearances still living a lavish lifestyle.


Like Heath Ledger and Anna Nicole Smith, it appears that prescription drugs were at least a contributing factor in his death.  Also as in the cases of Ledger and Smith, Michael’s death means big ratings for the cable news networks covering the story to the exclusion of other major world events.


Whether one views Michael’s life favorably or with disdain, considers him a great entertainer or a pedophile, one must concede that his life was anything but ordinary.  But, does living an unorthodox life make its end worthy of the rapt attention of a nation and much of the world?  Or, is the reason for such attention symptomatic of the meaninglessness that many feel in their own lives?


It is, in my opinion, an unfortunate sign of our times that many people lead lives of so little significance and meaning that they seek validation through vicarious experiences.  Never have fans of sports teams been more fanatical; never supporters of political causes and candidates more vitriolic.  Of course, vicarious living is a two-sided coin with some cheering success and others failure.  And so, while some will mourn Michael Jackson’s passing, others will glory in his demise, seeing in it some type of cosmic justice.


Still others will consider his story as just that – a source of entertainment and amusement.  Some will analyze the situation ad nauseam, spinning theories like so many strands in a spider’s web.  Some, like the citizens of ancient Rome at the Coliseum or the patrons of “freak shows” common in the U.S. from the mid-nineteenth through mid-twentieth centuries, will delight in his misfortune.


While curiosity is a normal part of the human experience, obsession is not.  And, for those obsessed with the unfortunate death of Michael Jackson and the cult of personality in the public media, perhaps the time has come to examine the reason for such obsession.  Michael is gone, but each of us remaining has an opportunity to find or expand the meaning and significance of our own lives.  Perhaps, we should seize the opportunity.

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