Karl Marx got it wrong. No, not about Capitalism. He identified the symptom, if not the cure. It's his declaration that "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce," that's at fault. For when it comes to the pedophile scandals of that most egregious piece of late 2Oth Century capitalist detritus, Michael Jackson, farce has always been in full operational mode both times. War in Iraq, turmoil in Turkey, suicide bombings in Israel, mass demonstrations against George W. Bush in London -- and in the US every news camera is focused on a celebrity freak. Was it only ten years ago that the singer-songwriter-skin-lightener-enthusiast was being investigated by Santa Barbara district attorney's office for molesting a pre-teen boy? Now here were are once more with the same DA charging an older but obviously none-the-wiser Michael Jackson getting arrested for molesting another pre-teen boy. And here I am as well, contemplating the self-proclaimed "King of Pop," his mass media "crown" ever-askew. So is it "deja-vu all over again"? Yes and no. For Michael Jackson '93 wasn't handcuffed mug-shot like Michael Jackson '03. And the deference shown by the "mainstream" media to a musical "superstar" has given way to bemused indifference with a performer barely capable of performing, given to releasing "great hits" collections as "new" product while selling off his allegedly "private life" as a series of contrived "documentary" specials.
In fact the only new song on "Number Ones" -- the album released on the day of Jackson's new scandal tsunami -- is "One More Chance," a ditty co-written by Jackson with R. Kelly -- another singing star under investigation for child molestation, albeit with girls. But outside of that, as Edie Beale was wont to say "Sometimes it's very difficult to separate the past from the present."
In 1993 I was writing for the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine, under the aegis of editor extraordinarie, Richard Rouillard. We thought we had a full-scale "think"-style profile on our hands; what with Jackson's show business past and pedophile present to put into perspective. " So to that end I canvassed everyone from screenwriters, producers, plastic surgeons and PR personnel, to testy African-American ministers like the Rev. William Epps (screaming "This is a wake-up call to Michael Jackson, to let him know who he is"), Jackson hagio-biographer J. Randi Taraborelli ("I'd just as soon not have Michael reveal that his girlfriend is Brooke Shields because obviously she's not. That says more about him that if he would have said 'I don't have a girlfriend.'"), famed LA muralist Grant Twitchell (who Jackson -- via a front organization -- was planning to pay to paint the performer's likeness on the side of the El Capitain theater in Hollywood), and best of all intrepid telejournalist Diane Diamond (then with Hard Copy, now with Court TV.)
"Tom Sneddin, the DA in Santa Barbara is a no-holds-barred graduate of Notre Dame. he's not a politician," Diamond told me back in '93. "He's a trial lawyer. And he doesn't do anything for show. I think the case is going to stay open for the remainder of the six-year statute of limitations. All my police sources and investigative sources are telling me 'We might not be able to get him because the kid won't testify -- no victim, no crime. But we're going to leave the case open and watch him like a hawk.'"
And indeed they did -- well past the statute of limitations, moving in for a hawk-like "kill" thanks to the fact that this time out the victim hasn't launched a civil suit against the perp, like his predecessor, the now 23 year-old Jordie Chandler. Moreover, since that time the law has changed, making it possible for the authorities to proceed with this new case as they hadn't with the old one. No civil settlement can now get in the DA's way. It was because of this settlement that my original article was eventually scotched -- there being no further story to write. But as the great Mae West said "Keep a diary and one day it'll keep you." Likewise a reporter's notes --which could well have been written yesterday rather than a decade ago.
"Michael likes photo books that document suffering," says Todd Gray, a young African-American who worked as Jackson's personal photographer ("I was his instant pocket camera") from 1979 to 1983. "Remember those photos Louis Hine took of kids in sweat shops at the turn of the century? Michael liked the look of those photos and preferred to be shot like them -- looking melancholy and a little distant." And so in a culture where appearance is all, Jackson's aura of fragility -- likened by Stephen Spielberg to "a fawn in a burning forest" -- was not only manufactured as a visual trademark, but eagerly disseminated by an unfailingly credulous press as a key personality trait.
Gray, who was thrown out of the Jackson inner circle when he submitted photos of Jackson to Newsweek without the singer's express approval, observed power plays first hand. "He freezes people out. He'll play people off against each other at board meetings -- knowing they all want to impress him. And he has a history of changing all the people around him every two albums or so -- the accountant, the lawyer, everybody."
The standard Afrocentric point of view interprets Michael Jackson as an example of racial self-hatred. O.K., that's one view. But there's another that links up with Michel Foucault's notion that the power structure no longer has to police society because there are already 'police' programmed by that society in the brain which maintains a certain check on behavior. Who am I to criticize Michael Jackson's surgeries as self-hating? That's an essentialist point of view on race. I must respect him and allow him to make any decision he wants to make as to how he's going to reconfigure his self or gender or what have you.
Those Hine photos will doubtless prove helpful to Jackson when he comes up for trial. "Melancholy and a little distant" is a perfect look for him on the stand. Foucault, however, is less helpful in such a setting -- unless he wants to change his plea. As for power plays, that's open to question. For while he's on the look-out for "detectives" to supply the sort of muscle that the currently incarcerated Anthony Pellicano provided for him in the Jordie era, former "friends" are heading to the lifeboats with the SS Michael Jackson taking on water faster than the Titanic. Queried at recent music awards show, producer Quincy Jones claimed his dealings with Jackson were "-all about the music. I wasn't involved in his personal life." Liza Minnelli, whose soon-to-be-ex husband David Gest was involved in numerous Jackson projects had no comment -- likewise the eyebrow-challenged Gest, who had Jackson serve as his Best Man at the couple's lavish "photo-op" of a wedding. And we're not likely to hear much from such discarded playmates as Macaulay Culkin, Alfonso Ribero, Emmanuel Lewis, and Corey Feldman -- "no child left behind" never being part of Jackson's MO.
But some things never change. The British tabloid press has claimed that in "love letters" Jackson penned to the boy currently in question, he called him "Rubba" -- the pet name utilized for his '93 amour in reference to the mutual masturbation the pop star was wont to instigate with the lad. Likewise the new boy, if he is indeed as claimed the youth identified as "Gavin" on the "Living with Michael Jackson" special, was like Chandler the issue of a divorced couple -- whose 'custody' couples form part of the drama. And just like Santa Claus in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, what Michael Jackson scandal would be complete with out Elizabeth Taylor? But this time out the aging star offered a rather late-arriving pro forma statement of support; with the proviso that she would have no further comment to make to the media because of the way its treated Jackson. Apparently, kid gloves aren't sufficient.
In the past, only a brave few have dared to take them off.
"When a performer's act for so long features random violence and strangled sexuality, how can that performer pose as a friend of child?" asks humorist Harry Shearer, whose radio program Le Show has taken frequent swipes at Jackson's pretensions. "Look at the Smooth Criminal video where he's shown rescuing children from an evil drug-lord against the background of a song about a woman being raped in her own apartment."
"The one thing that that show business people can do that public officials can't quite do as well," Shearer observes, "is dress themselves in the robes of humanitarianism. The difference is Washington journalists, when they're being lied to persistently enough, eventually smell a rat. In this town the more persistently and elaborately you lie to journalists the more they buy it and the less curious they get."
Needless to say, such sentiments would have to be amended in George W. Bush's America -- where being lied-to is so common that rat en croute has become the journalist's specialite de la maison, and a former body-builder famous for playing a robot in Science Fiction "action" films with no elective experience whatsoever, can be made Governor of California.
"My first reaction to the whole thing with Michael was anger," says comedian Paul Mooney, a one-time collaborator of comedian Richard Pryor's and a veteran of the comedy circuit for decades who has made frequent sport of the singer in his routine. "It seems they build up these black entertainers and then they try to tear them down. But the thing is . . . I don't know any black people like Michael Jackson."
In February of 1993, when a Los Angeles Times reporter queried Mooney about his reaction to Jackson's appearance on the "Oprah Winfrey Special," the comic's reaction was brusque: "It won't have any bearing on his career. It's over; everybody knows it. He's like 'The Phantom of the Opera.' It all seemed so insincere." But in the wake of the child molestation allegations, the police search of Jackson's property, and the revelation that the authorities ad pictures taken of the singer's private parts (the better to corroborate the testimony of his 13 year old accuser) Mooney's attitude has altered -- somewhat.
"I just don't understand why he let that happen. For a black man there's always the threat hanging over your head of going to jail. That don't scare me. I've known that since I was a kid. But they searched through his house like it was some nigger's apartment in Harlem! Look, you find a 13 year-old naked and tied up in my living room and I still wouldn't let you take pictures of my dick and my ass!"
"He's real concerned about what you think of him," Mooney notes evenly. "He called me up one time about my talking about his wanting to make himself look white on Arsenio. I told him that I don't tell him what songs to sing, so please don't tell me what jokes to tell. He asked me if there was anything he could 'do' for me."
Mooney pauses, rolling the recollection over in his mind. "I told him the next time I did Arsenio I wouldn't talk about him. So the next time I didn't and he sent me some 'Cristal' champagne." Mooney pauses again, having suddenly decided that the incident was less inconsequential than he first thought. "You know," he says hotly, "the first thing I asked him was how he got my number and my address -- that really pissed me off!"
The comedian is plainly deep in thought now. "He's just backed himself into a corner I guess," he says of Jackson softly. "And then there's this fixing his nose and his face and all that. I think wide noses are beautiful. I think they're sexy. I think they're us."
And any number of African-Americans would agree. However a white philosopher takes a tack similar to that of black photographer Todd Gray:"Michael Jackson," Jean Baudrillard writes in The Transparency of Evil, "is a solitary mutant, a precursor of a hybridization that is perfect because it is universal -- the race to end all races . . . Michael Jackson has had his face lifted, his hair straightened, his skin lightened -- in short, he has been reconstructed with the greatest attention to detail. This is what makes him such an innocent and pure child -- the artificial hermaphrodite of the fable, better even than Christ to reign over the world and reconcile its contradictions; better that a child-god because he is a child-prosthesis, and embryo of all those dreamt-of mutations that will deliver us from race and from sex."
But what Michael Jackson's life has actually shown is that there's no deliverance from either. And while the spectacle he provides may be welcomed by the administration as a "Weapon of Mass Distraction" from its multifarious misdeeds, it shouldn't be overlooked that unlike Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Ladin or George W. Bush, Michael Jackson is under arrest.
Copyright © David Ehrenstein
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