fighting for your life inside a killer

Late Thoughts on the Late Michael Jackson

Philip Brophy has put up an article on Jackson’s Ghosts, written in 1997, the same year the short-film/long-clip was released and it’s sufficiently brilliant (as with much of Brophy’s writing) to spur me into some belated musings on Jackson, none of which are too brilliantly constructed.

The first is a point of contention with Brophy’s claim that “Michael Jackson’s sense of his own being” is “something which most of us will only ever ridicule rather than understand its fundamental otherness”. I think this is only true for the more cynical types, myself included, who usually declare little or no sorrow at the news of Jackson’s death in what seems like an almost desperate attempt to flash their non-fan-of-Jacko credentials and thereby separate themselves from the gullible grieving masses. Such people almost certainly tend to ridicule any and all aspects of Jackson’s ‘being’, a suitably wide term that might reference his style, body, dress, deportment, voice, manners, morals, behaviours, quirks and, of course, music (though the latter, strangely, is almost universally sacrosanct).

They contrast with the majority of people I’ve spoken to about the death, fans of widely varying levels of intensity (from barely to fanatically), who want always to cut Jackson some slack. This tendency isn’t solely a function of his passing, though of course it’s now more pronounced than ever. As this describes the great majority, I’ll switch to the inclusive pronoun: We seem to have internalised Jackson’s 'otherness', in many ways. It may be by rendering it a didactic mirror for the excesses of our era, domesticating it into a kind of harmless Peter Pan fantasy, ‘looking past appearances’ to find the black artist or King of Pop of our dreams at his core, or more simply just accepting it. Such acceptance, of course, plays off against the widespread cultural fascination for Jackson as a symbol of decay, and media outlets were so happy to indulge this desire as to continue into gruesome descriptions of his autopsied body – missing hair, bruised, undernourished, etc. ‘Look,’ chorus the media, ‘before you lies the corpse of the fallen king! Recoil!’

But – was he not already a corpse? At what point did Jackson actually exist as a flesh-and-blood being? The kneejerk (and inversely racist) answer is to say sometime around when he was still black and his nose hadn’t fallen off, but in terms of the Jackson we know, that’s just as questionable. Jackson was, from early childhood, a sign – nay, spectacle – more than he ever was a human, a great cultural cipher, sending to do our bidding across sexual, racial and other trajectories and whose actual body, which lay underneath, would eventually manifest the remainders of such toil. Mark Fisher calls him an accelerant angel of capitalist production, “plugged in from the start into the media landscape”. And indeed, if anything, Jackson’s corporeality lived in our flesh, not his, in the kinaesthetic, somatechnic, liquid way we absorbed his image and the various sounds that pinged off his recordings – for his words were only the beginning, so much more of Jackson’s hits are taken up sonically by corporeal tics and subvocal gestures, they come to us strangely alive, but, like the Jackson character of ‘Thriller’ and, indeed, ‘Ghosts’, and, again, ‘Billie Jean’ (should I go on?), it is forever the product of an apparition, an absent presence - it is the rotting flesh of the living dead that we feast upon.

I guess that’s partly why we were prepared for his death, in a sense, to be a fan of Jackson is to worship the very process of (corporeal) erasure that commodity production and consumption demands (feel free to insert Marx’s definition of capital). It is a way of aestheticising the kind of zombie stomp (Jackson leading the way) we all make throughout the littered landscape of popular culture, the way in which we degenerate along with our idol. For we have only ever known Jackson through the signs of his degeneration, which are ours. It's all very circuitous.

That’s why, in a sense, I struggle to see Jackson’s aesthetic as a transgressive one, which is what Brophy seems to be agitating for in his 1997 piece: “He has left our world where plastic surgery is frowned upon, race must be black or white, music is required to be pure, and video clips are excluded from the cinema”. Giving kudos to this is basically kissing the feet of a mutant, shape-shifting late capitalism and the fundamentally unanchored, ambiguous qualities of signs – be they textual or corporeal – it relies upon to extract profit.

Nevertheless, that last quote from Brophy does return us to the point, and I’ll try to bring it together here – that is, at what point did Jackson leave us? 25th June 2009? Or sometime in 1997? Or any other relevant date? Or, just as pertinently, did he ever leave? You’ve probably heard from at least one grieving pop singer or family member or corporate executive attached to Jackson some variation on the theme of ‘he lives on in his music’. Perhaps the most shameless was from Randy Phillips, president of AEG Live, the conglomerate that were putting on Jackson’s upcoming tour. Phillips said that the company had "more than 100 hours of footage that could be turned into live albums, a movie and a pay-per-view special. He was our partner in life and now he’s our partner in death". It leaves a bad taste in the mouth, but Phillips’ post-mortem synergising contains a statement more profound than he realised – Jackson has always had one foot in the grave so to speak, and as such, nothing much really changes in terms of commodity production. Perhaps no icon other than Jackson can more fully express the ambiguity of the mourning of a celebrity; we live our relationship to the media figure through the para-social interaction enacted by media consumption, and to the extent that the filmclip, memorial TV special, signed poster, CD, news report, and so on remains (is explosively reanimated, even), then Jackson is still alive, we become his flesh more than ever.

He was dead for so long; he will never die, but even this is not comforting enough – what, then, do we mourn?

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