Gayle Madwin (queerbychoice) wrote,
Gayle Madwin

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Michael Jackson

It's kind of bizarre to see how much fuss is being made over the death of a singer whose career, though huge in its time, had been practically nonexistent for more than a decade - not due to any loss of interest on his part in continuing to make music, but rather to a very vocal loss of interest on the part of his audience. However, I think the news coverage is mistaken in implying that his major contribution to the culture was his music. Certainly he was one of the few most successful singers of all time, for a while, but he does have some competition for that spot. There's another, very different cultural contribution for which he was absolutely unrivalled, and therefore even more important than he was musically: he was the ultimate pop cultural pariah.

I think that our culture, like most cultures, feels a real need for pariahs: people that absolutely anyone who wants to can feel securely superior to. Pariahs are often people who break gender roles, such as the hijras in India, and Michael Jackson did that. But our culture has many other hierarchies in addition to gender that are taboo to mess with, and Michael Jackson managed to get himself on the widely disapproved of side of all of them. He went not only from male to almost female (probably the single most taboo path to follow in breaking gender norms) but also from black to basically white (again, the single most taboo path to follow), and from being adored for his successful career and incredible wealth to being a symbol of the ultimate in ridiculous misplaced vanity made possible by money: he had so many plastic surgeries to try to achieve some elusive standard of beauty that he very visibly destroyed his nose cartilage and ended up almost universally regarded as one of the ugliest people on the planet. At that point, just about the only thing left that he could have done to make himself more reviled was to get accused of child molest - which, of course, he promptly did.

I'm not suggesting that he planned any of this. He certainly doesn't seem to have enjoyed the resulting alienation of much of his fan base. But for whatever reasons, he did end up as the ultimate pop cultural pariah, and it does seem to me that his contributions to the culture in that way are even more completely unrivalled than his contributions as a musician. So I find it a little awkward that the news anchors seem to be trying to avoid talking about that, apparently for lack of being able to figure out how to do so without being gratuitously cruel to the dead.

But then, perhaps my view is skewed by the fact that I never heard of Michael Jackson until 1987, when I saw him in Captain Eo at Disneyland and was thoroughly repulsed. By that point he had already undergone a lot of his plastic surgeries and skin bleachings. I was eleven years old and had never even listened to the radio. Costumes and dance styles I was unfamiliar with frightened me, and the fact that my parents expressed similar repulsion and explained that his appearance had been drastically altered by plastic surgery and skin bleaching certainly didn't help matters. So I never experienced the Michael Jackson who, for some period of time, was perceived as just a great singer and not a pariah. I never bought his music or took much notice of it. So the only Michael Jackson I ever really knew about is the one who's almost impossible for the news anchors to express grief over, because talking about him is almost inseparable from mocking him. But I do feel that this aspect of him has at least as much to do with the world's seeming fascination with his death as his (largely destroyed) musical career does. For better or for worse, and whether or not they're willing to admit it, people feel a certain need for pariahs, and it's hard to imagine anyone ever again fulfilling that function as well as he did.
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