I'm looking at Michael Jackson’s Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department mug shot, and I’m thinking it’s no longer technically a human face (it’s Lily Tomlin melting, or Lily Tomlin as reconstructed by a mortuary makeup artist). It’s now, chiefly, a metaphor. It represents, of course, self-transformation gone horribly awry, and self-hatred, and self-destruction.
But it also represents a collective fear: that it’s not bad parenting, stolen childhood, or music-industry insanity that’s to blame for Michael’s ongoing meltdown. Celebrity culture has done this to him. And, so, by extension, have we.
He’s our Michael, our icon—a (formerly) gifted artist—and we let him do this to himself. He’s our American tragedy.
Michael Jackson’s nose is just the crumbling tip of the iceberg.
The corroded 45-year-old man we see today is arguably just a logical outcome, an extreme outcome, of an off-the-charts case of celebrity-entitlement psychosis. The former King of Pop now seems to be, somehow, the perverse product of the limitless love he enjoyed from fans in his prime. He doesn’t know he’s been deposed; he lives in (clueless) exile in a hermetically sealed world tailored to his own tortured specifications. He’s reimagined Neverland, his gated little patch of Santa Barbarian paradise, as not just his personal Disneyland but his private ancient Greece. Carnival rides plus man-boy sleepovers.
But as astonishingly reckless and delusional as Michael is (my God, love letters to a 12-year-old boy!), he’s somehow still part of a celebrity continuum. He’s an Über-freak, but of a type. Consider, for starters, his friends/former friends: Elizabeth Taylor and Liza Minnelli (and David Gest!).
And then consider the other conspicuously narcissistic celebrities (besides Liza and David) who have also suffered showstopping meltdowns lately: Paris Hilton and Martha Stewart and Rosie O’Donnell and Kobe Bryant and Rush Limbaugh. All of them caught in acts that betray their entitlement, their grandiosity, their neediness, their emotional greed, their expectations of blanket (or at least red-carpet-like) immunity. The world—with its petty little rules and restrictions and proprieties—is doing them a grave injustice.
Michael Jackson’s face is celebrity culture’s death mask.
Okay, yeah, we’re more celebrity-obsessed than we’ve ever been. But the ground, in that regard, has shifted rather radically beneath our (and their) feet: Our relationship to celebrity—and celebrity’s relationship to itself—has been so transformed over the past few years that these days it doesn’t take much to crack the veneer of celebrity news (even seemingly positive celebrity news) to decode what celebrity now means to us as a culture.
Almost entirely gone is the presumption that we’re interested in celebrities because of their talent or their work or because they’re leading exemplary lives or because they’re the first among equals in our supposedly egalitarian society, with America’s celebrity-watching being some sort of less inbred version of Britain’s royal-watching.
Rather, in the same way that, on the 40th anniversary of JFK’s death, it’s easy to observe that glamour has largely been drained from post-Camelot politics, we all regard celebrity glamour as a deeply suspect, ephemeral commodity. (Of course, the most salient feature of the JFK-anniversary TV orgy has been all the attention paid to the revelations about his medical ailments and sexual adventures. JFK’s image, in this revisionist moment, is now perceived to have been as engineered as, say, FDR’s.)
As celebrity has exploded, it’s also simultaneously been reduced (the Us Weekly effect) and pathologized (the “Page Six” effect) and deconstructed (the Behind the Music effect) and cheapened (the reality-TV effect). It carries with it a whole new set of signifiers and layers of meaning.
Not that all consumers of celebrity culture, and players in the celebrity-industrial complex, seem to grasp this.
When, earlier this year, Rolling Stone owner-editor Jann Wenner sat in Charlie Rose’s blacked-out studio and Charlie asked him why magazines are so celebrity-mad right now, Jann had a simple answer: “It’s uplifting to read about.”
Honestly, when I heard that, I practically did a spit take. In fact, I hit the instant-replay button on my TiVo to make sure he really said that (he did!). Then I thought, What planet is Jann living on?
Okay, on Planet Pop, where Jann owns several homes, I guess you could argue that stars are still gods. Bad behavior among rock and pop stars, of course, has traditionally burnished, not damaged, reputations. (Witness the unsettling sight of still-starstruck, supportive fans swarming Michael Jackson’s SUV after his arrest.) In fact, Jann is not only one of the original celebrity-editors (along with Hugh Hefner), he’s the Ur-fanboy-journalist, having created his magazine back in 1967 in large part to get close to the objects of his adoration. Jann and his team of golden-moment photographers (Annie Leibovitz and others) created one of the classic formulas for the deification of rock stars—a formula Tina Brown and Graydon Carter later adapted and turbocharged for Hollywood at Vanity Fair (where Leibovitz now works).
But the celebrity-industrial complex isn’t, duh, about uplift anymore. Just ask Paris Hilton, whose sex-tape scandal—suspiciously timed to coincide with the premiere of her new Fox reality series—is hardly scandalous. In fact, the only achievement her celebrity has ever reflected is that she’s a constantly-falling-out-of-her-clothes exhibitionist. A celebration of vapidness as a form of postmodern brand purity, Paris is a beautiful rich girl unencumbered by any agenda beyond ubiquity. Her sex tape merely reinforces her image: She falls all the way out of her clothes! And a video camera happens to be there! It was only a matter of time.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in Celebrityville, Queen of Nice Rosie O’Donnell, friend of chubby housewives everywhere, reveals herself to be a complete fraud—she’s not only not nice, she’s a dyke and a bitch—and proceeds to drive her eponymous magazine into the ground while berating a cancer-victim employee.