The Feeding Frenzy of Renown: Michael Jackson and the media

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by Rich Broderick | July 8, 2009 • I remember The New Yorker being described in the wake of its transformation by the lamentable Tina Brown as a magazine that once existed in order specifically not to publish articles about Madonna.

Ground Zero – Rich Broderick teaches journalism, serves on the board of the Twin Cities Media Alliance, and sometimes still finds time to write for the TC Daily Planet.

I like to think of The Daily Planet as fulfilling a similar role. And so it is with some trepidation that I offer my thoughts on Michael Jackson. I do so only because his death and subsequent media feeding frenzy reflect the pathological impact the mass media has on what passes for American culture.

Like all celebrities, Jackson’s fame was a product of that mass media and its peculiar power to transform a flesh-and-blood human being into a screen upon which the rest of us can project our fantasies, positive and negative, peaceful or violent, wholesome or corrupt. In some cases – i.e., Paris Hilton – the person so transformed need not possess any discernible talent, just a bottomless appetite for publicity and a flair for getting it. In some cases – as with Jackson – celebrity finds its origins in genuine talent that, often enough, ends up overshadowed and ultimately consumed by celebrityhood itself. Surely it must take a secure sense of self to be able to withstand the warping effects of celebrity – a secure sense of self that Jackson seems not to have possessed.

As French theoretician, Guy Debord, observed, we live in a society that has been engineered to operate as a spectacle, a society in which the mass media – the first normative institution in history driven solely by the profit motive – steeps us in the idea that reality is perception, that whatever lip service might be given to authenticity or inner truth, what really matters is the surface – appearances.

Over the past two decades, Jackson acted out the alienating consequences of confusing image with reality, a confusion that, given sufficient resources, can reasonably be expected to give rise to a “lifestyle” constructed entirely out of imagery – which is to say, a fantasy world.

The unbearable lightness of being that results from living in a fantasy world affects American society generally; it was Michael Jackson’s misfortune to embody a particularly concentrated and therefore virulently pathological version of what is more generally distributed throughout the culture as a whole. Looking at the persona he created for himself, what are we to conclude other than that, however much money or fame he possessed and then squandered, he desperately wanted to be someone – anyone – else? He was a grown up who wanted to be a child. A male who seemed to want be both male and female. A black who wanted to be white. His fame and fortune merely afforded him the means and the opportunity to act out what in reality seems to have been a ferocious – and ultimately fatal – case of self-loathing.

And therein lay his tragedy – and ours. For the cult of celebrity, born of a timeless human appetite for larger-than-life figures shamelessly exploited by the mass media, is at bottom little more than a mutual suicide pact. For unfortunate souls like Michael Jackson, that pact means literal death. For the rest of us, it means a slower downward spiral into the disempowerment and self-nullification that comes from willingly consuming the endless spectacle of trivia offered up to distract us from the crimes of those who actually run things (including, of course, the media itself).

No, the mass media in America does not want to kill us – not literally. It just wants to anesthetize us – to render us quiescent – with the beguiling prospect of whiling away our lives in a kind of Neverland of the mind.

For Jackson, at least, this uneasy half-life is over. May he rest in peace.