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Terrance KleinOctober 12, 2009

He was one of the most commercially successful entertainers of all time. “Thriller” remains the world’s best-selling album. In four decades he earned 13 Grammy Awards and had 17 number-one songs. Fred Astaire, who ought to know, declared, “That boy moves in a very exceptional way. That’s the greatest dancer of the century.” And Frank Sinatra?  “The only male singer who I’ve seen besides myself and who’s better than me—that is Michael Jackson.”

But there was another Michael Jackson: the boy who played with rats and the young man who slept in a hyperbaric chamber. Then came the plastic surgeries. The bizarre diet. The short marriage to Lisa Marie Presley. The ambiguous sexuality. Couldn’t one ascribe those oddities to the life of a celebrity? 

But what about the skin bleaching? Or sleeping with young boys and the charges of pedophilia? Or the family formed of children whose mothers he never married and probably didn’t sleep with? Or hiding his face behind surgical masks and swaddling his three children in veils? Should one conclude that Michael Jackson wasn’t so much extraordinary as bizarre?

Or is there a third possibility? Was Michael Jackson our once and future king? In other words, did his life chart the course of our own? It takes talent and drive to become a superstar, but also an ability to reflect back to the public something of its own spirit, its fears and hopes. Perhaps Jackon’s decisions are harbingers, like the symbolic actions of the ancient prophets, of what is to come.

Going Designer

Begin with the facial surgeries. The Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas suggested that the face of another makes immediate demands upon the self. In the other’s face, we recognize a responsibility for someone not ourselves. Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Cambridge philosopher of language, called the face “the soul of the body.” Michael Jackson sang: I’m starting with the man in the mirror. I’m asking him to change his ways. Take a look at yourself and then make a change. 

Some of his biographers have speculated that Jackson, with his broad-nosed face, worried that he would grow into the very image of the man he feared and sometimes even loathed—his father, Joseph. This apprehension, more than mere vanity, may have prompted the surgeries. He is reported to have regretted them by the end of his life, which is why he so often hid his visage from public view. But if the human face is the portal through which we engage others, the icon of our inner selves, what does it mean when the face goes “designer,” when we not only mold and remold, but shop and select the face that we want? What happens to human communion when Botox freezes the frown? 

And what does Jackson’s life say about the future of relationships? Jackson literally purchased a family. He was romantically, and probably even sexually, attracted to Lisa Marie Presley, but for various reasons she refused to have children with him. Enter Debbie Rowe. She was paid to be a surrogate mother for Michael’s first two children, Prince Michael I and Paris. The mother of Prince Michael II, often called Blanket, has never been revealed. In short, it’s not entirely clear if Michael is the biological father of any of his children. 

Others, unable to have children, for either biological or relationship reasons, have made similar decisions, usually after great thought. Michael faced neither obstacle; he simply wanted children on his own terms, and he could pay for them. Ethicists have been warning for decades—indeed the very span of Michael’s career—about the danger of making children, the family itself, into a commodity. 

The issue is not one of moral evaluation but of locating Michael Jackson within his times. He was a man whose drive and resources allowed him fully to utilize—or to exploit?—the opportunities of his epoch and thus made him an avatar of it. It’s easy to see why someone coming out of a home which was emotionally, if not physically, abusive would seek distance from his previous self. If the face is an icon of the soul and the soul has been scared, why not begin again? If the family is the source of suffering, only a new form of (immaculate?) conception, one freed from a wife and the traditional nuclear family, will suffice. Others have made similar lifestyle and family decisions.

A Parable of Personhood

One can read Jackson’s life as a parable of modern humanity’s relationship to its own nature. Perhaps his greatest mistake was his unwillingness to accept human nature as God gave it. But the problem with that reading lies in separating the nature God has given from the nature that human beings forge for themselves. Where does the heaven-formed personhood end and the human-rigged one begin? Nature and nurture cannot be so easily distinguished.

Even the most conservative moral theorists realize that human nature cannot be derived solely from biological data. As Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas both pointed out, the most salient fact about our animal nature is our rationality, our ability to change and grow in response to our environments. Our personal histories, culture and even commercialization play too large a role in defining gender roles and expectations. Whatever sexuality Michael Jackson forged for himself, one cannot claim that he simply rejected an easily discernable, divinely ordained template.

And then there’s Neverland, his fantastical home. Did Michael create his own fantasia in response to the loss of his childhood? In the hills outside Santa Barbara he raised up a retreat from the rest of the world, one where time stood still and relationships could be redefined. In her recent memoir, Resilience, Elizabeth Edwards writes of retreating into cyberspace after the tragic death of her 16-year-old son in an auto accident. Online she could share pictures and stories with other mourners. But hasn’t technology—in the form of cable niche networks and the Internet—given all of us the possibility of a Neverland, a place where we interact only with those who already share our values and interests? How else can one be gay in Nebraska, or a Republican on the Upper West Side of Manhattan? Type your predilection or prejudice into the web. You are not alone. Neverland awaits.

Icons and Idols

Is Michael Jackson our future? Or, more broadly, are celebrities living icons or idols?  Do they show us the way forward or merely reflect us back onto ourselves? In a 1974 interview, a 14-year-old Jackson told a reporter, “I like to write my own things, because an artist knows what fits him best.” That captures the spirit of the age: seemingly endless creativity, freedom from the constraints of the past and the ability to strike out for the unseen territory. 

Jackson’s principle biographer, J. Randy Taraborrelli, records a revealing menace for all of us in a seemingly mundane decision, one made for the 11-year-old Jackson by Berry Gordy, a record producer and the founder of Motown records. In October 1969, as his father and brothers were being shuffled from one hotel to another by the Motown brass, it was decided that Michael Jackson would move in with Diana Ross in her Hollywood Hills home. “It was a calculated thing. I wanted him to be around her,” Gordy explained. “Diana’s a very influential person. I knew that Michael would pick up something just by being around her.”

According to Taraborrelli, Jackson’s fascination with Ross lasted for years. “All day long when I wasn’t rehearsing my songs, I’d be listening to hers,” said Jackson, “I watched her rehearse one day in the mirror. She didn’t know I was watching. I studied her, the way she moved, the way she sang, just the way she was. Afterwards, I told her, ‘I want to be just like you, Diana.’ And she said, ‘You just be yourself and you’ll be a great star.’”

The accomplishments of successful men often lie in their grasp of human nature, and Gordy knew this much: to be human is to hunger, to go out of oneself in order to find the self. To be human is to look for something—someone to love, to imitate, to pattern one’s self after. Sending Michael to Camp Diana set that in motion. Whatever else he was in life, as a result of that decision, and many others like it, Michael Jackson became a commodity, something packaged and produced for the consumption of others. He wasn’t alone, and the phenomenon isn’t confined to Hollywood. We do it to celebrities of every stripe. Perhaps we have even taught our children to package themselves on Facebook. 

Michael Jackson became a great star, but did he do that by being himself or by becoming what others decided he should be on the basis of commercial calculation? If Jackson is our future, if his career says something about our prospects, should we rejoice in a brave new world, where we use modern technologies to create ourselves, or fear for our souls, because they can be bought and sold for profit?

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14 years 8 months ago

I discussed this piece with a fellow Jesuit who questioned the appropriateness of using Michael Jackson's life as an ingress to deeper reflection. His concern was really with the propriety of trying to use someone's (tragic) life as a parable for where society is headed. But this objection forced us to wonder: Where was Jackson's life? Where did the real Michael Jackson end and the media reflection of him begin...and, by the end of his life, could such a distinction even be made? 

Klein's reflection on Jackson is both enlightened and disturbing. He masterfully gives flesh, or incarnates, his philosophical and theological insights in the life of Jackson. But in giving flesh to his subject, he calls attention to the perils of his subject's flesh: skin that has been bleached, scarred, and distorted so greatly as to bear no resemblance to Jackson's youth. This should give us pause: can we ever efface the past without being remade in another's image and likeness? Jackson's grotesque mien may hold the answer: his ghastly white face seems crafted less by human hands than by the white flashes of paparazzi cameras. 

Klein's piece leaves us with much to reflect upon. Jackson's life does seem to offer a modern parable, one that we should read carefully and take to heart earnestly. Well done!

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