Wednesday, July 08, 2009

The Memorial Show: Michael Jackson and the rejection of “the Real” in popular culture

How do we reconcile spectacle with genuine, human experiences?

Watching the Michael Jackson Memorial Show (for that is what it was, a show) Tuesday morning, with its heartfelt, and undoubtedly sincere attempts to be “tasteful” (or as one MSNBC commentator put it, “classful” ), I was struck by how often genuine emotion invaded the otherwise flawlessly simulated moment. In order for those emotions to be communicated they had to surmount an Everest of maudlin theatricality. Imagine watching an out-take from a silent film. The broad pantomimes and ostentatious gestures briefly replaced by a sigh or an akimbo stance. Even though we are well-steeped in the world of celebrity exposure (“Brittany Nude!” ) they are still “they,” they are still the stars, up there, and unreachable. And they have unreachable manners, deigning to be “real” and “down to Earth” only when they need to play the part of one who is “real” and who is “down to Earth.”

Because the celebrity is an empty vessel into which our hopes, dreams, fears, and anxieties are collected and performed (because we ourselves are no longer capable of those experiences on our own steam) we cannot afford for them to be real in the sense that we, the citizen, non-celebrity, are real. Understand the subject of that last independent clause: we. It is not as if the celebrity is not a human individual, it is that as celebrities they are used by the watcher, the voyeur, in ways they cannot control. Thus John Hinckley Jr. feels he had a relationship with Jodie Foster simply through his willful construction of an intimacy between them. Her not reciprocating had drastic, near-homicidal consequences. The reality of the person who is the celebrity is pure cognitive dissonance.

Thus, at the memorial for Michael Jackson, there were many “confessions” of access to the “real” of the man. “Magic” Johnson related a story that he once ate a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken with Jackson on the floor. This is a real moment, and we respond to it with laughter because it is anxious making that one such as him would eat of the food of the common people. Irony generates anxiety. Laughter alleviates it. We never knew Michael Jackson was real. It is surprising. Likewise, Brooke Shields, in her tearful remembrance, recalled Jackson simply as a friend. She herself well-ensconced at a young age in celebrity felt Jackson a kindred spirit. (Indeed, by her own admission, it is what bound them to each other.)

And when, at the end of the show, the young daughter, Paris, wailed her grief over the loss of her father, we were stunned and, perhaps, momentarily nauseous, because we are being forced into a position to see Michael Jackson as a biological entity who performed a fundamental human act of having and raising a child. The child is saying, essentially “Michael Jackson was a man who I loved and who loved me. He is no more.” That absence in her life is the absence of genuine presence of the real, as opposed to the simulated presence of the celebrity. And to be pulled from spectacle (the show had come to its finale with a turn of “We Are the World,” a vulgarity of exploitation repurposed as hagiography) into the real was a jarringly surreal experience.

The absence of the celebrity after his death is often a rejected plot development for some fans. No one ever speaks of the ordinary citizen faking his own death, but rumors of Elvis’ hoaxing the work have become a cottage industry unto itself. Even now, entering “Michael Jackson” “death” and “hoax” into Google will return over eight million results – including a website of that very name. The celebrity “body” is of less use than the concept of the celebrity in question. The usefulness of the celebrity continues regardless. The scenarios are endless but one version may go like this:

No one can tell me that Michael Jackson is real dead. He is alive and living and will soon be undergoing major reconstructive surgery to become a white man under another name. This was the only way for him to really escape his debts and his public controversies.

Thus, when confronted with the genuine emotion of a young, grieving daughter, or a tearful friend, those moments cannot be properly assimilated. Perhaps they are staged. Even a very young girl can pretend. After all, she grew up in a fairy tale land called “Neverland.”

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