The many trials of Michael Jackson

Media feeding frenzy satisfies our growing bloodlust

Unless, like the subject of this essay, you live on another planet, you can’t escape Michael Jackson. He is everywhere again – a one man media shitstorm the likes of which haven’t been seen since, well, the last Michael Jackson media shitstorm. Whether he’s dangling babies from balconies, discussing his creepy sleeping arrangements with British reporters or molting like Vincent Price in House Of Wax, MJ is the single most speculated-upon person in the world.

But why? Why is Jackson the subject of such an inordinate amount of public fascination? You’d think he actually did something to deserve all this attention – like cure Parkinson’s, negotiate peace in the Middle East or make another hit record.

In the last month alone, North Americans have been treated to three television specials and three major magazine cover articles on Jackson, plus countless newspaper articles and radio talk shows. The theories abound as to why the reclusive and admittedly eccentric star is suddenly making himself so available to the media: everything from raging madness to my favourite – and to me the most likely – he’s got a new album in the works.

However, Jackson’s motives and the validity or invalidity of the many charges against him don’t really interest me, because I couldn’t care less how many facelifts he may have had. And if he is a predatory paedophile, the question I want answered is why hasn’t he been stopped? What fascinates me about the Jackson media explosion is how much it reminds me of a homophobic witch-hunt.

What, exactly, are the complaints about Jackson? He is psychotically vain. He spends way too much money on ugly crap. He’s tacky. He likes young boys and aging movie queens. He looks like a woman. Heard any of these accusations before?

Michael Jackson is the perfect fag for the media to bash without getting bashed back by GLAAD or other watchdog groups. He is effeminate but ostensibly straight. He is suspected of being a boy lover, but has never been charged. He is flamboyant and excessive, but that’s part of his entertainer persona. In other words, Jackson can be picked on and maligned in all the ways gay men are picked on and maligned without anyone having to ever call him gay and risk appearing illiberal. And that makes him a perfect target.

On a deeper level, Jackson’s bizarre self-mutilation and possible paedophilia provide the mainstream media with a bottomless reflecting pool from which it can bring all sorts of titillating, sexually explicit and otherwise forbidden ideas into play without risking a censorious backlash from its scared but fascinated public. Jackson’s enormous celebrity makes him simultaneously familiar and remote and thus the ideal flat screen for our culture’s projected neuroses, hang-ups and displaced guilt. The public made Jackson what he is today, and, as Dr Frank-enstein learned, the only way to relieve the guilt of such procreation is to hunt the monster down.


I suspect it would be pointless to mention to the editors of Us or People that sandwiched between their articles describing Jackson’s alleged kiddie-sex habits are ads featuring starved 12-year-old girls dressed like Pamela Anderson. The night I watched NBC’s “special report” on Jackson’s addiction to plastic surgery, the commercial breaks hawked a new reality TV show called Extreme Makeover. And people say irony is dead.

The mainstream media will scream like Chicken Little about, “Protecting the children! Protecting the children!” – but don’t believe it. If anything, Jackson’s biological children (and the foundlings he surrounds himself with) are a goldmine of future tabloid fodder. As soon as one of his kids is old enough to sign a contract with a crayon, expect million dollar book deals and movies of the week to come pouring out of whatever’s left of Never Land. Barbara Walters has Prince Michael One and Two on speed dial.

Is all this Jackson mania merely a distraction, a way to ease Americans (and the British) into World War III or to make them forget about the Catholic Church’s sex scandals? Maybe, but overall that theory seems too pat, too easy, especially when you consider that the fascination with Jackson’s darker side has been building for years – in perfect synch, not coincidentally, with the boom in celebrity culture.

More North Americans watch Entertainment Tonight than watch their nightly news broadcasts. A scary thought, but not a wholly incomprehensible one. If you live in the US, or Canada for that matter, you’ve pretty much given up on your government or any subsequent hopes you might have had about changing your world – and when people feel disempowered, they turn into bitter, envious scolds. Luckily, celebrities always need scolding.

How dare Meg Ryan leave her husband for that drunk Russell Crowe! Is Ben Affleck crazy, J Lo’s already been married twice! Pee-Wee Herman – well, I never trusted him in the first place!

The great thing about celebrities is they need us more than we need them. If you think Meg Ryan is an unfaithful slut, you can vote with your wallet and not go to her new movie. When was the last time you had that much direct power over Premier Eves or Saddam Hussein?

However, by trading our civic power for the quick fix of celebrity snakes and ladders, we’ve entered into a truly unhealthy relationship with the media – one that may be consummated by an irreversible, monstrous expression of our misplaced collective will.

To be blunt, there is almost too much blood in the water now to call off the sharks, and it is entirely possible that the media (and all of us who revel in its macabre spectacles) will not let up on Jackson until he is dead. If that happens, I shudder to think where our Leopold and Loeb marriage with the media will take us next.

RM Vaughan was a Canadian writer and video artist.

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Culture, Music, Arts, Toronto

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