Celebrity, high and low, is judged by double standards. We forgive the talented their sins because we appreciate their talents. Sometimes we're hypercritical (and hypocritical) for the very reason they let us down -- when what they say has little, if anything, to do with their talents. The moguls of the old studio system in Hollywood knew what they were doing when they kept the politics, if any, of their stars hidden safely away.
We don't really want to know what a good actor like Sean Penn thinks about politics, overlooking his childish anti-American diatribes, because we know his views are dumb. Even if we like Bo Derek's conservative views, we cut her a little slack because her extraordinary beauty once made her a "10." Few movie stars make the transition from someone we want to watch on the screen to someone we want to listen to on a platform. Ronald Reagan did it the hard way, not by shooting off his mouth for the fan magazines but by serious work, leading the actors union in troubled times and putting meat on the bones of his instinctive love of country.
We live today in a much more visual age, when superstardom is magnified by the insatiable maw of television. It's not enough to sit together in a dark movie house for a shared theatrical experience. Superstars come into our living rooms and dens at all hours, bombarding us from many directions and in many guises. They become icons for love and hate, admiration and envy. And not only for us. They're devoured by their own images, reveling in narcissism and public adulation without limit.
So it is with Michael Jackson. In a psychological and sociological sense, we collaborate as a greater-than-life-size composite of Count Dracula, space alien and carnival freak, creating a monster for our times. I tried not to follow the trial closely, but when I heard the verdict would be on television within the hour, I waited, patiently, debating with myself whether I wanted him to be found guilty or to (moon)walk. I was in no position to decide, but the trial, for all its bizarre spectacle, balanced the considerations of child molestation and the legitimacy of his accusers.
In the end, the system triumphed because 12 jurors decide that Michael Jackson was only guilty of being Michael Jackson, but not guilty of the crimes charged, at least beyond a reasonable doubt. A lot of us think too much time, money and attention were spent on the circus, but like it or not, we live in the circus, clowns and all, where tabloid hype abounds 24/7.
Michael Jackson is the child in all of us who yearns never to grow up. He's not Peter Pan, who ultimately left childish things behind. "MJ" is the living spectacle of perversity, the mature boy child who refuses to act like an adult. Life is one long pajama party. He lives life as satire and farce with the dark side of his moonwalk in full sight.
He exposes how public obsessions with race, sex, "gender" and youth, synthetic as they may be, become twisted in a living icon who's lost his way. The young boy who never had a childhood constantly tries to invent one, and he's never satisfied with the dress rehearsals. He looks like a child, now like a girl, now like a boy. He's black with white features. He sings about "hot love," but he's sexless. He wears flashy costumes, but they become like his skin, sewn into his nerve sinews, a dancing, singing life that has turned into a simulation of himself. He's the mirror image of Pinocchio, going from boy to puppet with his public pulling the strings.
Historian Daniel Boorstin understood Michael Jackson before he was thrust upon us. In "The Image: Or What Happened to The American Dream," he writes about the way the graphic revolution of images multiplies and vivifies our visual sense of what's happening, but never refines understanding or deepens perceptions of the world at large. It only confuses us, denying us direct experience.
"By a diabolical irony the very facsimiles of the world which we make on purpose to bring it within our grasp, to make it less elusive, have transported us into a new world of blurs," he writes. "By sharpening our images we have blurred all our experience. The new images have blurred traditional distinctions."
That sounds a lot like Michael Jackson. And, alas, sometimes a little like most of the rest of us.