Michael Jackson and the world in the mirrorMay 6, 2013
I have to confess to being enthralled by Michael Jackson as a musician, a multi-arts performer, and an icon of our age. His life is somewhere between an arresting parody and a mystery play of all that is simultaneously celebrated, deprecated, and tragically imitated in western popular entertainment-fuelled culture. He bears all the marks (and I guess by this I also mean scars) of an extraordinarily creative artist. More than just singing his songs,MJ created his own new unique language with all of those little throat sounds that punctuate the audio, and the constant motion, including the signature moves (even the ones that were too intimate and explicit at the same time for some audiences)that were like long sentences of dance. His expressivity was disarming, and I have often thought he shared much in common on a personal level with another brilliant, tortured and scandal-generating dance-genius, Nijinsky.
Jackson’s biography reads a little like an Old Testament prophet – particularly the really freaky ones. Like Hosea or Ezekiel, whose bizarre lives held up a mirror to the culture they critiqued, using public imitation as a form of denunciation, Jackson’s visual life showed us – in vivid incarnate caricature – exactly what we worship. And in the end, didn’t it just gross us out a little bit? Which is how the life of the prophet often works. Words of warning are often not enough. We need to see, graphically, the ridiculous obscenity of our lives.
Voices of scandal, accusation, pity and retro-psycho-analysis have provided plenty of commentary on the transformation MJ’s physique. The trite and reasonably offensive summary (managing a trifecta of racist, sexist and age-ist slurs) is that he changed from a young black boy into and old white woman. This is a cheap way of dismissing what I think is the major artistic work of Jackson’s life – what his true voice was saying.
In the modifications and transformations Jackson underwent, he followed the rules of our western celebrity culture exactly.
He showed us what it is that we value,
and how grotesque our values and predilections are.
He started with ‘The Man in the Mirror’ and made the changes that show the world is not a better place for the things that we say we desire:
- Children who are placed on a pedestal for the indulgence of adults.
- Faces that are judged on mathematical proportions and shades of cultural colonisation, that don’t show either the deep pain or deep joy – as any kind of emotional depth that carves its way into our faces is outlawed.
- The visual triumph of ‘white’ over ‘black’.
- The triumph of marketable image over creative expression.
- The maleable effeminate face subject to the gaze of the world, on the one hand touted as more desirable and more beautiful than the male visage, but actually less respected, regarded – only a thing to be seen.
- Excessive expenditure on ourselves in self-enhancement and improvement
- Voyeristic sexuality without accountability or consequences.
What is left of such a legacy?
The old-school prophets were called to address the unfaithfulness of a society by such publicity stunts as marrying prostitutes (Hosea) and lying in filth (Ezekiel). Their outlandish attention-seeking antics were, unfortunately largely unsuccessful. Their cities persisted in heartless exploitation of the poor, shady deals and sham piety, and were gobbled up by the greedy empires of the north and east. While Jackson’s troubled and tormented life provides much to provoke and prompt change and much that should shame us into cultural renovation, the machines of celebrity, cookie cutter image and cliche sexualities continue to self replicate, and we continue to exploit our tender children’s gifts, make shady deals to assure a steady supply of shiny objects and project sham righteous indignation at the violence of others. What does it take to shake us?
Perhaps the Apostle Paul was right after all, when he said that it was not shock tactics, shaming or hellfire and brimstone threats, but ‘God’s kindness that leads us to repentance’.
If MJ shows us what the shock tactics and attention seeking cliches look like when taken to their extreme conclusion, I wonder what a life that was filled with the kindness of God -calling us to forsake all our pretensions, our fake selves and our appalling prejudices and exclusions – would look like?
I suppose the classic christian answer here would be to say ‘look at Jesus’ – that’s where the kindness of God is.
On the one hand, I heartily recommend it. Read the Gospel of Mark or Luke or Matthew, or even John – but be warned. You may be left appalled, shocked and scandalised by the way Jesus’ world treated him – with scandalous accusation, publichumiliation, and violent grotesque execution. Still, even in this, may you encounter the kindness of God.