Michael Jackson and a Lifetime of Celebrity

Last month, the passing of Michael Jackson sent people all across the globe into mourning. From his most loyal listeners to even those too young to remember Jackson the musician but instead Jackson the punchline to jokes, the outpouring of respect for one person was unparalleled in this decade.  In the following guest post, Charles Ponce de Leon, author of Self Exposure, a book on the creation of American celebrity (available from UNC Press), and Fortunate Son: The Life of Elvis Presley looks at the creation and curse of Jackson’s celebrity, as well as the way the public reacted to his death. – Matt

Michael Jackson’s untimely death sparked a truly remarkable outpouring of grief among his fans and others who have followed his career.  In part, this was because of his contributions as a musical artist.  But you have to wonder if the public response would have been as great if, say, Bob Dylan, Madonna, or Bono had passed away.  These are figures that also have had a great impact on music and popular culture, and they still have large and devoted followings.  Yet I doubt their deaths would be public events of such magnitude.  This is because, in the public imagination, Michael Jackson is far more than a musician and entertainer.  Like Elvis and Princess Diana, he is viewed as a tragic figure, perhaps the quintessential “casualty” of our culture of celebrity.

As a musical artist, Jackson belongs in an elite league of popular musicians and entertainers that includes Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Duke Ellington, Hank Williams, Presley, Dylan, and the Beatles.  His work with the Jackson 5 was one of the highlights of the late 1960s and early 1970s, yet he really came into his own as a solo artist in the 1970s.  His pathbreaking album Off the Wall, released in 1979, made him the most popular and influential African American musician in the world and laid the artistic foundation for his astonishing success as a crossover artist.

As good as Off the Wall was, few listeners or critics were prepared for the sheer genius of Thriller, which may be one of the three or four most influential albums in popular music history.  Producing seven mammoth hits and some of the most brilliant videos in the history of the medium, it established Jackson as the premier musician and showman of his generation, the undisputed “King of Pop.”  And though his subsequent albums never achieved the same level of success—either critical or commercial—they were solid and at times sublime.  Of course, Jackson now measured himself against the benchmark set by Thriller, and his failure to reach this peak again became a persistent source of professional anxiety.

Numerous fans mentioned his music when questioned by reporters about their affection for him.  A colleague of mine described Thriller as the “soundtrack” of her undergraduate years, and many younger fans are equally passionate about the music he made afterward.  But for many, this was not the most important reason for the sorrow and feelings of loss they experienced when they heard about his death.

Rather, they were deeply moved by the peculiar circumstances of his personal life, and by a sense that he could never turn professional success into what one might call “true success”: contentment, a secure and fulfilling family life, and acceptance by others, including the public at large.  And, like Elvis, at the heart of the story for many of his fans is a suspicion that it was celebrity itself that killed him.

What makes Jackson’s story especially tragic is the fact that he became famous so young and was a working professional during his childhood.  Jackson, of course, emphasized this on numerous occasions in seeking to explain his peculiar lifestyle, most notably in a 90-minute interview with Oprah Winfrey conducted in 1993 and, again, in 2003, when he sat for another long interview with a British journalist.  It was a regular theme of journalistic accounts of his life and career, however, from early on.  Unlike Presley, who at least had twenty years before he became famous and lost connection to the real world, Jackson was estranged from it by the time he was ten, and by the 1990s, this theme was accompanied by a related one—that his early success was tainted by the physical and emotional abuse that he and his siblings were subjected to by their fiercely ambitious father.

In short, Michael Jackson had virtually no time to be a “real” person.  From an early age, he was thrust into the spotlight, and though he made the best of this, and was able to develop his extraordinary talent—and talent that would never have emerged if he had remained unknown—his long career in the limelight and the pressures that it brought caused him to retreat into a veritable cocoon.  Here, abetted by enablers, he could do as he pleased and experience the pleasures that childhood success and celebrity had denied him.  This quixotic mission is the explanation for many of his bizarre antics, and it underscores the story’s central thrust—that Jackson’s celebrity was essentially tragic.  While it enabled him to become a huge and beloved star, and bestow upon us his unique and priceless “gift,” it undermined his grounding and psychic stability and made it impossible for him to accept himself or enjoy his success.

This doesn’t happen to all celebrities, which is why we don’t mourn so deeply when they pass away.  After all, despite their fame, they have been able to carve out at least some semblance of a normal life and achieve a measure of “true success.”  When they die, we might miss them and feel grateful for their contributions to the culture, but it is not nearly so sad as in the case of a figure like Jackson, who was catapulted to celebrity as a child and became even more famous in later years.  In the end, Michael Jackson was never able to grow up and figure out who he really was.  At an age when most of us are struggling to develop a distinct identity–when peer pressure is bad enough–he was already in the spotlight, experiencing pressures that are incomprehensible to most of us.  And as he became more and more famous, the spotlight’s glare become more penetrating and disabling, inducing the self-hatred and paranoia that marked his last years.  It’s no wonder that so many of his fans and many other people feel so badly about his death, for it was public adulation and our insatiable fascination with him that made his life so difficult and roused the inner demons that drove him over the edge.

Charles L. Ponce de Leon
California State University, Long Beach