First, let’s state these facts about the human race, and more specifically, about the 5% who are Americans:
1. People will believe any crap, and the facts are useless against a crap-filled belief system.
2. When one bunch of people looks at the problems of another person or another bunch of people, they always ask: how can we make their problems all about us?
These are two of the most powerful operative principles that define the human condition.
Whatever is happening out there — like the early passing of Michael Jackson — you can be pretty sure that your understanding of it will depend on these two operative principles. None of us — not even Chomsky, Heidegger or Foucault — is immune to their power.
And here’s why:
We live in a world of stories, not a world of events.
We live in a world of stories told by a whole bunch of story-tellers.
Politicians. Philosophers. Experts. Pundits. Critics. Academics. The media. Bloggers. Wall Street. Main Street. Labor unions. Global capitalists. Et cetera.
These story-tellers tell us their stories so they can gain all sorts of goodies for themselves.
Votes. Ratings. Sales. Market shares. Wages. Bonuses. Grants. Nobel Prizes. And so on.
And we believe their stories.
We believe their stories NOT because they are TRUE stories, but because they are GOOD stories.
They appeal to our story-enjoying selves, the way comedies and tragedies about men, women and the gods appealed to the ancient Greeks, where the template for Western-minded stories was created.
A. SOME AMERICAN STORIES
Today, our American stories include:
1. The right beer or handbag can get you laid or admired or promoted by a person with higher status than you.
2. You can get really lucky and become a celebrity.
3. Celebrities suffer just like us or worse than us.
4. A messiah will arrive among our anointed selves to save our sorry asses just when we need him, and maybe he’ll get killed in the process, be he Jesus, FDR, JFK, MLK, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, John Lennon, or Michael Jackson.
5. All that is good in this world has been brought into the world by us. Look at how we brought down Soviet Communism, and South African apartheid, and rid the world of dictators like Saddam, Lumumba, Aristide, and Allende. Everything we do and have in America is better, from the iPhone to SUVs to the Ivy League to Hollywood to our Constitution to Springsteen to Barack Obama to Goldman Sachs to our democracy to our sports, which include the aptly named World Series.
Chomsky famously wrote that consent is manufactured, but he stopped short of what is really being manufactured, and on a much deeper level.
It’s not just consent that’s manufactured: it’s our consensual SELVES that are being manufactured. The stories we are told manufacture not just what we think, but WHO WE ARE. And it is our consensual SELVES — who we are — that make us do the stupid and glorious things we do.
For example, we didn’t just agree with a small section of our midbrain to go and invade Iraq. No, our whole country moved itself heart and soul in patriotic zeal to go there and support our troops in their heroic mission to bash the evil Saddam and his terrorist followers to a semblance of sandy pulp. At that point, we not only acted out of outrage about 9/11 — we WERE in fact a nation of avengers bent on justice, however rough that justice might be, and however mistaken we might’ve been in where that justice needed to be meted out. (We picked Iraq, but it might’ve made a whole lot more sense to pick Saudi-Arabia — except our first family Bush was totally wired into the Saudi/Bin Laden axis of oil and arms sales.)
Mind you, not all our American selves were manufactured to set out on this happy invasion lark. Some of us were manufactured to say: hey, this is a mistake, folks, this is not good, what the heck are we doing?
In fact, there will always be a 10% to 30% holdout against any national consensus of self. Behold the fact that Bush Jr.’s approval rating never reached minus infinity as it should have, but held steady around 30%. Behold the fact that if Obama did all of the following:
a) locked up all the fraudulent bankers making big bonuses off the backs of job-and-home-losing Americans;
b) destroyed the HMOs;
c) helped put Detroit back on its feet;
d) doubled the salaries of good teachers;
e) created a huge new black middle class, and
f) made us totally energy independent
… there’d still be at least 10% of folks on the left who’d complain that last week he didn’t hug enough of the important Latino demographic 45 to 65, or some such whine.
We Americans are just ornery that way.
Let’s see how consensual story-telling applies to an event now flooding our consensual selves.
B. MICHAEL JACKSON — FROM ABUSED CHILD STAR TO WACKO JACKO
In our household, my brilliant girlfriend could give a flying flickering fetish about most celebrities, which is easy for her, since she doesn’t know who the heck they are anyway: to her, the cover of any People Magazine could be a catalogue for agricultural equipment, given the sometimes dorky-looking models they use.
So we missed all the TV coverage on Michael Jackson that I read about on the blogs.
However, my absence from the TV coverage didn’t really matter, because my consensual self could write the obits in my sleep. Greatest entertainer of all time. Everybody tries to sing like he sang but they can’t do those hiccups like he could. Fred Astaire said Michael had the best moves ever. He sold more albums than Prince (the more talented man). HE NEVER HAD A CHILDHOOD. His Dad was too tough on the sensitive little tyke. He married Priscilla for PR reasons. He slept with young boys in his bed, and god knows what went on in that bed of his.
And so on. Why can I write it in my sleep? Because that’s the story we’ve all settled on. Because that’s what Barbara Walters says. Because that’s what Oprah Winfrey says. Because that’s what my neighbor says who saw Oprah say it.
So let me be the consensual 30% holdout here, and state my own ornery opinion:
1. Michael Jackson had a great childhood, for chrissake. He did exactly what he wanted, and sang and danced his way into the hearts of America, surrounded by his loving older brothers. He was as happy as a clam doing it. He absolutely LOVED working hard to get things absolutely right, and boy, did he get things right. When he was a grownup, he saw kids doing the moonwalk, so he took their move and practiced it for hours every day, for weeks on end, to get it totally and absolutely instinctively in-his-bones-and-balls-and-synapses right. Then he totally and absolutely blew the nation’s mind when he did that incredible performance of “Billie Jean” on TV in real time. I saw the damn thing, and my mind is still blown. More so than Prince blew my mind with his Purple Rain album, even though Prince is the more talented musical maestro.
2. Michael Jackson was a marketing genius. That’s why he outsold Prince, and everyone else except Elvis and the Beatles and Bing Crosby. That’s why he turned MTV from a racist white channel into a hey, black-dudes-are-really-neato channel with one video: the “Billie Jean” one, directed by Britain’s top video director, Steve Barron. Michael Jackson was ridiculously smart. When he went out on his own, he hired the absolute best people: Quincy Jones, Bob Giraldi. Listen, I worked in advertising, and I’m telling you now, only Steve Jobs has done half as good a job as Michael Jackson, and Jobs has it easy: he does a little song and dance every now and then, but that’s like cruising compared to the intensity of what Michael Jackson pulled off. Michael Jackson created the perfect all-age-appeal persona: the boy-man who likes to dress up. And teen girls loved it UNIVERSALLY, especially in that haven of cute (kawai), Japan.
3. Michael Jackson wasn’t weird. Bill Clinton screwing every big-haired bimbo that walked past his winkie and becoming President — that’s weird. Then NOT banging Monica Lewinsky — that’s even weirder. (She came from a good family, so maybe she wasn’t trashy enough for him, and he therefore substituted the phallic symbol of his cigar for the real thing.) There were people in my high school in South Africa who were way weirder than Michael Jackson. One guy ate raw frogs; another actually bonked his dog, and then let most of his friends try, too. The dog didn’t seem to mind, I was told. Damn weird, though. One of my best friends told me he had an affair with his sister who was a few years older than he was. And then, when she turned seventeen and said no more nooky, he told me he was totally pissed about it for TWO YEARS. That’s weird.
4. So if Michael Jackson wasn’t weird, what was he? He was rich, that’s what he was. He could do anything, and he did. He shopped like crazy. He bought the Lennon-McCartney catalogue. The man owned “Yesterday” and “Hey Jude.” He lived the life of the rich, who apparently are different from you and me. He over-leveraged himself, just like AIG and Wall Street and all those leveraged-buyout guys (who like to call themselves private equity firms to mask the fact that they’re riddled with debt). He had three children, whom he loved so much that he decided to do a concert series for them because they hadn’t seen him perform live yet. Like a good daddy he wanted to do it just so for them. So he worked his ass off at the age of 50, and his heart conked out. He died for love of his art and his kids. What’s so weird about that? Who wouldn’t like to die for their art or their kids?
5. Did he fellate boys? Of course not. He shared a bed with them, because he liked it. Not a custom I would personally encourage, but that was the way it was with him. He liked being with young boys. Lewis Carroll liked being with young girls. Not all people who like being with kids are perverts. Jeez, there are probably Catholic priests who like being with kids and don’t try to bang them. Some mothers nurse their kids till they’re six. So Michael Jackson liked hanging out with boys, but then had to pay millions to make predatory mothers go away who were so weird they pushed their kids at Michael Jackson, hoping to collect.
6. Was he a self-hating black man? Please. Spare us. The man had the money to do what he wanted with his face, so he did it. Sure, it’s not something you and I would do, but in show business all of them do it all the time, and being Michael Jackson, he did it more avant-ly than the others (yet not quite as avant-ly as the French performance artist Orlan). He did it because he dug it, and he did it because he needed a new face as a marketing tool. He collapsed all the successful star personas in one. The universal boy-man (James Dean, Brad Pitt). The fantasy elf man (Freddy Mercury, Boy George). The androgynous buster of gender boundaries (Jagger, Bowie). The action doll (the Silver Surfer, Wolverine). He put it all together for the entire cosmos of concert-goers, and people bought into his trip like hopped-up maggots going after a fat cadaver. Michael Jackson didn’t want to be confined by his ethnicity — stamped as another good-looking black dude, like Harry Belafonte. No, he wanted a face that would bring bigger sales than that. First he tried the Diana Ross unisex look (my personal favorite). Then the small upturned nose pixie look, a kind of space-age elf. Lately a more mature Joan Crawford diva forties look, which he sort of pulls off, except the journalists have decided for us that it’s “ghoulish” (they probably said that about Joan Crawford herself, too).
7. Did Michael Jackson’s dad beat the crap out of him? Yes. My dad beat the crap out of me. One of my friends who grew up in the Bronx told me that whenever other kids held him down and stole the sneakers off his feet, and he arrived home and told his Mom how he got robbed of his sneakers, she would STILL beat the crap out of him for losing his sneakers. Until about the 1960s, every kid in the world had the crap beaten out of them by their parents, and most of the kids in the world still get the crap beaten out of them. Am I supposed to feel sorry for little Mikey that he had the crap beaten out of him when it happened to everybody? Give me a break, people.
8. Did Michael Jackson check out because of the effects of prescription drugs, enabled by his doctors, just like Elvis got returned to sender while sitting on the crapper, also from drugs prescribed by an enabling physician? We’ll see. Metallica paid their shrink $40,000 per month to keep the band sane, so if that’s any guide to what an enabling doctor to the stars gets paid, it’s pretty easy to understand why these doctors are so ready to cash in their oath.
So that’s it: my 30% holdout ornery story on Michael Jackson.
C. WHO SHOULD YOU BELIEVE?
Who’s right, me or the consensus?
Does it matter? No. Right or wrong has got nothing to do with it. Because this is not about him — it’s about us. We always make it all about us. That’s what we habitually do as a nation of narcissists looking in the mirror. We can’t help it.
Michael’s mom and dad and siblings and Elizabeth Taylor know who Michael Jackson is, but we don’t, and we probably don’t much care whether we do.
And you? You’re either going to go with your consensual self, or with my holdout self. Or a mixture of both: some damn consensus that’s got nothing to do with any actual facts. In fact, the facts are useless against my or your crap-filled belief system.
This I know for sure: the accepted consensus story about Michael Jackson will beat out all other stories. Because in our world of stories, the packaging will always be more important than the product, and a package of kitsch and bathos will always sell bigger than blunt truth or the authentic Real (whatever that is: we have contending simulacra here).
I’d say, go ahead, believe the consensus story about Michael Jackson: your safest bet is to believe whatever is easiest for you to believe. As for me, I’m always ready to unbelieve myself. Why the heck should I believe myself? Even more to the point, why should you believe yourself?
There’s absolutely no reason to. And here’s why. Come tomorrow, a better story could easily come along.