Michael Jackson and the curiously artificial

Posted: Dec 30, 2003 12:00 AM

Post O.J., a lot of attention has been paid to celebrities in legal trouble. Analyzing everything from their courtroom attire to whether or not their pores look healthy can bring everyday people closer to the celebrity's curiously artificial world. But, though this makes us happy, it spells doom for the celebrity.

Exhibit A: Michael Jackson. This new year, television will be inundated with retrospectives on Jackson's career, his troubles and the evolution of his face - this bizarre testament to self-hatred writ in flesh. We'll wonder whether or not he molested a child. Again. We'll cringe and smile, reducing the vast arc of Jackson's life to the butt of water cooler jokes.

So the important question becomes, why does this highly successful, intelligent and talented performer engage in self-destructive activities? How could he risk all of his wealth and power by acting so irresponsibly? (Whether he considers it "charming" or not, sleeping with young children is savagely irresponsible.) Jackson defenders will say that the pop icon is being unfairly criticized by the media, but Jackson does not sleep with children because of the media's unreasonable demands. He commits these indiscretions because of a spiritual illness. I am referring to how the curiously artificial environment of his childhood left him completely deprived of a moral framework to help arbitrate his whims.

Early on, Jackson was trotted on stage and told to perform. The Jackson family's success was tied to this child's ability to sing and dance. These intense demands and constant scrutiny twisted inward the child's spontaneity and ripped to shreds any semblance of a healthy childhood. In the ensuing decades, Jackson corralled nearly $500 million as a pop icon and businessman. His wealth and fame further liberated him from the rules of social or economic accountability that define most people's sense of self. Never a part of society, Jackson receded into a fantasy world complete with amusement parks, oxygen tanks and a chimp named Bubbles.

"This is a fantasy business. It's not a reality-based business, so they don't have reality checks. Often they seem to go over deep ends. It's not for attention, it's not for money. It seems to be a result of the business." said In Touch Weekly magazine editor, Tom O'Neil, to an AP reporter.

Most of us spend our teen years testing social boundaries to learn about ourselves. It is from these experiences that we build a moral foundation that arbitrates what to take in and what to reject. This foundation gives definition to our lives. It forms the principles that give our lives meaning. Jackson, by contrast, enjoyed a life quite beyond the normal laws of human decorum. His fame, talent and wealth meant that he would not be neutered by the normal economic boundaries that enmesh the rest of us. It also meant that everything in his life was fraught with a sense of impermanence. He could do as he pleased, therefore, no real value could be assigned to his life. His frame of reference became aesthetic. He drifted from one outrageous fancy to the next. His life was in a constant state of flux. From this perspective, Jackson seems not merely a victim of external factors (i.e., oppressive father, hyper critical media, etc.), but of his own inability to develop a moral or spiritual foundation. There were clues to Jackson's self-torment. Most notably, his attempts at psychotherapy with a scalpel.

Still, we gazed adoringly at Jackson precisely because he was beyond the social laws and we delight in his destruction because it makes us feel as if we've supplanted him. In a culture that is increasingly vain and materialistic, Jackson's rise and fall is a signpost for our great moral task: the need to carve out an immutable foundation that will help us quell the savagery that is innate to human beings.