The news that singer Michael Jackson died early Thursday afternoon at his Los Angeles home, has predictably sent shock waves through the world of pop celebrity. It has also provoked a tidal wave of responses in the Twittersphere and blogosphere.
Michael, of course, transcended the borders of his musical genre because he was an innovator, a pusher of boundaries in musical terms. Sadly, his celebrity in latter years became more a matter of various troubles, such as the charges of child molestation brought against him and, latterly, problems relating to money as his album sales dropped. On the basis of his uncertain health alone, even his biggest fans were unsure whether Michael would be successfully mount the ambitious series of concerts planned for London this year.
In some ways, Michael's celebrity trajectory is unique; in others it follows an all too familiar pattern. On some levels, it seems to parallel the life arc of another king of popular music and ruler of pop-culture, Elvis Presley. There are obvious differences, of course, but the similarities shouldn't be ignored. Their stories may have important lessons to teach us about the power of global celebrity and the frailty of those human beings who are subjected to it.
Like Michael, Elvis was raised the son of relatively poor parents and began to experiment with new forms of musical expression at a young age. Like Michael, he was able to bring a new audience to what was previously thought of as ‘black’ music. In Elvis’ case it was Rock n Roll; Michael’s music was more derivative of rhythm and blues and soul.
In the post-war America of the fifties, a global phenomenon was being born. Weary of war and upheaval, their parents wanted for their teenaged children a quality of life they themselves had not enjoyed in their youth. Teens were, for the first time, given disposable income to spend as they wished. As is the case wherever there is money, creative marketers were on hand to help young people spend it. They were invited to splash out on teenage movies, pastimes and toys, such as roller skates and mass-produced surfboards.
Marketers were also quick to identify the prominent place music and musicians occupied in the imagination of the young, both as a powerful source of identity and as a rallying post for activism and social change. Middle class young people were exposed to new forms of music, which were often frowned on by their parents and authority figures. The new music was borrowed, in the main, from black R&B and gospel and was at times considered dangerous and antisocial, which made it all the more attractive.
Elvis was seen as the embodiment of that edginess and danger. Good-looking, hugely talented and unafraid of walking all over convention, he became the ultimate symbol of wilful self-expression. In the process, he sold truckloads of records and made other people a lot of money. He became a one-man industry, as did Michael Jackson two decades later.
Both Presley and Jackson were pioneers and, at least in public folklore, rebels. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the attention they received, both were given to flights of surprising generosity and unusual vanity.
In both cases, beneath the self-confident public air there lurked an abiding insecurity. The very insecurities which drive highly creative people to succeed need to be understood and managed, or they will take over. The deaths of Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin and others bear testimony to the fact that celebrity all too often covers up inner traumas, separating people from their inner struggles.
Surrounded as they are so often by ‘yes’ people, the young and famous are often inured against facing personal weaknesses. As a result, some seem to remain emotionally or psychologically stunted, never quite growing beyond a certain phase in their lives. Instead of making the big changes as they confront their inner weakness, as most of us have to do, they may simply decide to change their inner circle when things get rough. Both Michael and Elvis did exactly this.
Alternatively, they may take refuge in lavish lifestyle choices, as if the quality of one’s life really does consist of the things one owns.
For his part, Elvis found adulation harder to deal with later in life. Again, this is hardly surprising given the enormous attention he attracted. Nothing could have prepared him for the rigours of celebrity on that scale. He reportedly once told a girlfriend: ‘Girls are not in love with me; they’re in love with the idea of me.’
On one level, the same might be said of Michael Jackson. How can any human being possibly live with the huge and unpredictable ups and downs of ubiquitous global celebrity? Susan Boyle couldn't deal with it after her instant recognition factor went through the roof – and, thankfully, she knew only a fraction of the attention Michael received. Younger stars like Britney Spears continue to struggle in their quest for lasting peace of mind and a healthy self-esteem in the midst of the 24/7 media maelstrom.
Arguably, all of the modern claimants to pop-royalty at least had the opportunity to learn from Elvis’ experience, a benefit he didn’t enjoy. Elvis is reported to have said, late in life, ‘I am so tired of being Elvis Presley.’ After his death, at the age of just 42, LIFE magazine ran a major feature on his life and work. The writer spoke movingly about Elvis’ eventual struggle to live up to the image of his youth. ‘Perhaps not even Elvis could be Elvis any more,’ he wrote.
Sadly, this may also be a point of similarity between him and Jackson. Not even Michael, with his fragile health and ageing body, could hope to live up to the image he’d established a full two decades earlier.
We do well to remember the young Michael, full of energy and unbridled creative force. But we would also do well to learn from the struggles of the older Michael and perhaps to reflect on how we should treat those who seek, yet are so often harmed by the limelight of global fame. Like Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson died a relatively young man who still had much to offer the world.