There was an interesting question posed in today’s Toronto Globe and Mail by their Television critic John Doyle. In his analysis of the media coverage of the Michael Jackson trial he said that the real story had been missed. The fans behind the man.
He posed two questions. First, why are people are so obsessed with him to the point of treating him like the leader of a cult? He described some of their behaviour during the announcement of the verdicts and it was disturbing. The woman who released a white dove for each non-guilty being the most extreme of the “We love you Michael” placard carrying crowd.
Secondly he asked are they versions of us? He recounted attending a premiere for a Hollywood movie and being more fascinated with the onlookers then the stars. Waving signs avowing undying devotion to people who they are never likely to meet or know beyond the second hand reports of the tabloid press or carefully worded statements issued by their publicists.
The phenomenon of impersonal adoration stretches far and wide through contemporary life. Sports figures, rock stars, film and television personalities, and other public figures are all idolized to various degrees. Notoriety, instead of deterring, seems to only add to the fascination, one only need to look at Madonna and Dennis Rodman to see mild examples of that.
These people are set apart from us through their associations with things that we consider glamorous or their ability to do something better then the normal person. Professional athletes play the same games that most of us have at some point in our lives, but at a level far beyond our abilities. Because they are “better” than us we award them respect and honour their achievements by putting them on pedestals.
When I was an actor I remember working with a director who commented that Bruce Springsteen, and by implication all stars, was the modern equivalent of a shaman. He could walk into any room anywhere and immediately become the centre of attention. In a stadium full of 60,000 people he only has to walk on stage and he is the focal point for all that energy.
I believe this is not a reflection of talent but rather power given to these people by us through their being a point of attraction. We have invested certain positions in society with power. Actors, rock stars, television personalities, business leaders and politicians are designated as important through our acquiescence. If we did not respond they would have no actual impact.
These tendencies are exploited by all concerned. From advertising agencies to political advisors there are those whose sole function is to constantly remind us of how important these positions are. These label promoters have seen their importance increase ten fold in our world where style has supplanted substance. When judgements are made on appearances those who fall into familiar categories come out ahead every time.
In pre-Christian times most civilizations had a wide pantheon of gods and goddesses to draw upon. Each one of them reflected an emotion or an aspect of life. The human attributes of the deities provided the material for plays and stories that entertained the masses. In our monotheistic society, with no other idols to worship, we have created secular icons.
They are larger then life but still human and have been reduced down to one dimensional representations symbolic of an emotion of sentiment. Saddam Hussein is evil. Pamela Anderson is lustful. They are used to make moral points and to exemplify what is good and bad in society. The actual veracity of the point or opinion is irrelevant, because the symbol has its own meaning.
When an idol’s shine dims there are two possible reactions that can occur. Commonly the person completely disappears from the firmament. But there are the rarities who will hang around after the lustre is gone. Sometimes enough pity has been generated by the means of their downfall to elicit a type of sympathy vote, but I think the real reason is something else.
When there is a large investment of emotional energy into someone the prospect of turning your back on them is nest to impossible. Having deluded themselves into believing in their objects infallibility rejection would be tantamount to rejecting themselves. Just as bad, if not worse, their turnaround would make them look so foolish that the ridicule faced from loyalty would be minor when compared to the lose of face in admitting your were mistaken.
Although there may be a little of the former in Michael Jackson’s case I believe the majority of those who are hanging on fall into the latter camp. If they denied him now they would be denying themselves. I do not believe that any person who’s character allowed them to identify that deeply with someone for what they do has the strength of will to admit their own fallibility.
It is not so much a matter of whether or not these people are us, as Mr. Doyle asked in his article, because there is no denying that they are an accurate reflection of a pattern of behaviour that is prevalent in our world. What we need to ask is to what extent are we like them. I am not surprised in the least that the media would ignore the story of Mr. Jackson’s fans. To go there would force them to analysis there own role in the creation of and sustenance of the star system. They are not about to bite the hand that feeds them.