Michael Jackson, tragic in life and death, is the most extreme example of what happens when we commodify people
When we turn human beings into products, we can't expect to like the results. Michael Jackson is now the ultimate example of that, and hasn't the outpouring of emotion following his sudden heart attack last week been extraordinary? For a man who was vilified for his circus lifestyle, his distorted physical appearance, his whispery voice, his questionable relationships with children and even for losing his considerable fortune, we seem to miss him an awful lot.
People expressed their grief by going out and buying copies of his albums (a futher commodification), as if somehow that would show the so-called King of Pop how much they loved him, or expunge their guilt for mocking him as he tumbled from the pedestal he occupied in the 80s, turning whiter, slighter, and more desperate as he fell. Even TVNZ's American correspondent Tim Wilson admitted that he had bought one of Jackson's albums in the frenzy of commercial grieving and wasn't sure why.
As the events leading up to his death are endlessly chewed over, details have emerged as to the duress the 50 year-old may have been under to perform an incredible 50 London concerts, starting next month, to pay off his debts. Yes, people were keen to see if he still had the juice but more importantly they wanted to extract cash from a franchise that had turned into a loser following allegations, starting in 1993, MJ had abused children. Despite the fact that he was never found guilty of interfering with young boys, doubts remained and consumers showed their disapproval by giving his last album, Invincible, released in 2001, a wide girth.
Now all that is forgiven, or perhaps it just adds to the buzz. Humans are cruel animals: we love a spectacle, the stranger and more disturbing the better. One of the most famous humans ever to skip across the global stage has died, far too young and before he had a chance to redeem himself, and we are fizzing with the drama of the moment. The fact that we all used him for our own entertainment, starting with his parents who pimped him out from the age of seven, well that just adds a soupcon of remorse to the emotional maelstrom. And it won't stop us from reenacting this creepy stage show again, with another disturbed former child star, Britney Spears, a logical starter.
The great tragedy among a veritable catalogue of Jackson tragedies is that he believed his own hype. One of the few laugh-out-loud nuggets in the weekend's ocean of MJ coverage was a reprint of NZ Herald entertainment editor Russell Baillie's review of Jackson's 1996 Auckland concert. Recounting a series of 'wow' and 'oh dear' moments in the razzle-dazzle spectacular, Baillie spoke of the cringe-o-meter nudging towards red as the concert hit its bizarre climax.
"It got no higher than during Earth Song when a tank (as in Tiananmen Square/Gulf War/Bosnia) rolled on and came up against Jacko, one-man peacekeeping force. Smiling superhero Mike left the vehicle's gun-toting soldier a sobbing mess despite being armed only with a small child and bunch of daffodils."