Sarah Churchwell: Devoured by his own celebrity

Michael Jackson’s self-hatred ricocheted against a narcissistic megalomania

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Last week, I was home in Chicago for a holiday, where a local radio station was offering free trips to "London's O2 Arena to see the legendary Michael Jackson in concert!". Idly, I asked my husband if he believed for one second that Jackson would perform. He said that Jackson had no choice, given his debts. I replied that we would have no choice, but the rules governing our lives didn't apply to Michael Jackson.

Nobody had the slightest inkling of what would happen, of course; his death never crossed my mind. I thought he would default, because the very rich are different from you and me. It turns out I just had the wrong F Scott Fitzgerald quotation in mind: Jackson would never show up on that stage because there are no second acts in American lives – at least, not in public lives.

Like the other great celebrity icons who preceded him – not only Elvis Presley, but also Marilyn Monroe, for example – Jackson appears to have been devoured by his own fame. If there were any doubt remaining that extreme fame is extremely toxic, surely Jackson's sad, early death puts that doubt to rest.

Jackson's death, like Marilyn's, like Princess Diana's, is already inspiring intense, even hysterical outpourings of grief, because like them he projected a sense of innocence, vulnerability and (of course) childishness that belied the intense, dangerous power that his wealth and fame actually bestowed upon him.

His fans' grief will be proportionate to their feelings of protectiveness, as well as to their devotion to his music. But already there is a distance creeping into some of the accounts, a sense that many observers felt so alienated from him that, with all respect to his music, they are finding it hard to identify with him enough to really grieve for him. Like those other icons, in other words, Jackson became immured behind a mask of his own creation. Unlike the rest of them, he seemed compelled to transform himself into that mask, carving it into his very body.

At the same time, Jackson crossed and transgressed identity categories in a way that probably no global icon before him managed to do. He redefined the crossover of American pop music, the way it habitually sold black traditions to white audiences. At first we found his border-crossing exciting; it seems no accident that his most successful album was called Thriller: it titillated, but didn't threaten. Soon, though, as his power increased, so did the fear and rage he projected, almost in spite of himself. His album titles seemed to overcompensate, as if trying to convince us, and himself. From being just Off the Wall and a Thriller, he began protesting too much, insisting that he was Bad, Dangerous, even Invincible. The hubris was mounting. We could see that tragedy was looming; we just didn't know what shape it would take.

To the watching world, he was far from invincible. He was less like his messianic album titles and more like the pitiful, often infantile, song titles: "Scream", "Childhood", "Leave Me Alone". He was the "Man in the Mirror" – the carnival mirror of show business, that is. Increasingly, he became the distorted reflection of a huge spectrum of our cultural preoccupations: child abuse, child stars, child molestation; privacy and publicity, the endless tease of celebrity hide and seek; gender-bending and sexual ambivalence; racial hybridity and internalised racism; even surgical alteration. What cultural anxiety didn't Jackson ultimately reflect?

His masculinity seemed permanently in crisis, as did his adulthood; his self-mutilation seemed as pure an incarnation of internalised racism as we are likely to see again, even as he insisted that his whitening skin was the result of a "skin condition" – which, in one sense, it surely was, for what is racism if not a condition of skin? But all this self-hatred seemed increasingly to ricochet against the narcissistic megalomania created and sustained by unimaginable wealth and fame.

That someone so rich, and so apparently shrewd – supposedly he negotiated superb deals for himself at the beginning of his solo career having no doubt learned the lessons of the exploited Jackson 5 all too well – could end up in the isolated bubble of bankrupt luxury has everything to do with the distorting effects of living in a consequence-free world.

There's a reason why we say that children who are overindulged are "spoilt" – people are ruined if their behaviour has no consequences. First abused and then indulged, Jackson ended immured in a grotesque fantasy of prelapsarian bliss. He wanted to stay a child for ever, but the Fall was inevitable.

It's as if the public performance of celebrity demands a public outpouring of grief: celebrities are there to perform and externalise our feelings, our ambivalences, our desires, our passions for us. Pop music provides not just the soundtrack to our lives, as the cliché goes; it releases our emotions and helps us to articulate them. This is why music is so important to adolescents, who are struggling with questions of identity and self-expression.

Music – not just the lyrics, but the music itself – expresses confused or illicit passions: rage, lust, envy, frustration, channelling these energies and creating an outlet for them. This was Jackson's genius. He changed the face, the look, the sound, the style of pop music. But there can be no doubt of how the resulting wealth and fame changed – or determined – him. He once told Oprah Winfrey that he identified with the Elephant Man: "I love the story... It reminds me of me a lot... It made me cry because I saw myself in the story."

On the other hand, he was also the consummate showman. As part of its coverage of Jackson's death, the BBC interviewed a writer who'd travelled with Jackson some years ago and found him to be grounded, accessible, eminently normal; as they neared their destination, however, Jackson suddenly produced a black surgical mask and covered the bottom half of his face. The writer asked what on earth he was doing, and Jackson responded: "Bring on the razzle-dazzle." He might have believed that he was in control of the performance, but his early death suggests the all too brutal truth – to paraphrase another great American writer – that it was just pretty to think so.

Sarah Churchwell is senior lecturer in American literature and culture at the University of East Anglia

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