I caught all of about ten minutes worth of televised coverage of the Michael Jackson memorial service this week (I was in a pizza parlor, waiting for my slice to heat up) - which, as it turned out, was about eleven minutes too many for my taste.
I don't mean to sound like somebody's craggy old grandpa, incessantly whining about how "it was better in our day", but I couldn't help thinking about the degree to which Jackson - in life and death - personified the utter shallowness of the culture we now endure.
And I certainly don't mean to play the game of My Dead Rock Star Is Better Than Your Dead Rock Star, but I also couldn't help being thrown back upon my memories and grief at the loss thirty years ago of a cultural figure who really did matter, John Lennon.
The two individuals, their contributions and contexts, our reactions to them, and even their deaths, say everything about America then and now.
The fact that some commentators have exposed the worst excesses of the Jackson media death-bacchanalia suggests there may be a shred of hope for us as a society yet. But stack those lonely voices up against the tidal wave of televised coverage of this non-event, and the grim visage of our unbearable lightness as beings comes into an altogether too clear focus.
Despite being twenty years past his prime at the moment of his death, Michael Jackson personified that lack of seriousness that has become to this society what water is to fish. As an entertainer - and that is the operative term - he struck me as a profound regression to an era whose then apparent demise I surely did not lament. Like, say, Sammy Davis Jr., Jackson could sing and dance, and was a black man successful at penetrating the white man's world. But like the entire milieu from which Davis emanated, Jackson's work (as opposed to art) was careful to demand little from its customers - again, this being the operative term. (Not for nothing was the song-writing machine that penned the Jackson Five's early hits known as "The Corporation".)
Hence the silliness that has been attendant to his death, and in particular the Academy Awards-like public ceremony featuring Mariah Carey and all the usual sultans of smarm. It would be most unpleasant to admit to ourselves that one of our greatest cultural icons lacked depth. That could only mean, ergo, that the fellow in the mirror is the proud owner of a substantial and uncomfortable absence of there there. And so we desperately try to append qualities to Michael Jackson in death that he never possessed in life, the better to explain away our own vacuousness.
Jackson himself strikes me as a sort of tragic figure, according to the most gracious rendering I can put together, in honor of speaking as charitably about the dead as one can. His father appears to have been a success-obsessed sadist who may own the lion's share of responsibility for what his seventh child became, both good and bad.
And what that was more than anything, it seems to me, was a boy locked forever in the body of a man. I certainly don't begrudge anyone that, if that's how they choose to live their lives (sans the penchant for pedophilia, of course, or the use of one's own child as a daredevil photo-op prop). What I wonder about is what it says about us that we elevate such an individual to the highest ranks of those we adore as a society.
Yes, I know Michael Jackson gave money to charities. And that he was honored by Ronald and Nancy Reagan for his work in fighting drug addiction. Gosh, I feel better already.
In so many ways, Jackson - like his contemporary, Madonna - represented the emptying of content from the great flowering of popular culture that preceded him. Once the substance had been entirely sucked out, all that was left was the bogus symbolism of anti-establishmentarianism and the hollow tropes of faux danger and commercialized dissent.
When John Carlos and Tommy Smith held up their single gloved hands at the Olympics in 1968, it took guts, you knew what they were saying, and it was in your face. By the time Michael Jackson did it fifteen years later the glove was now covered with sequins, it was part of a dance costume, and what exactly did it mean...? Wrong question, sucka. Meaning was by then already so dated a concept. It was enough that is just seemed "Bad" - a real "Thriller".
Where Lennon had the stones to put his celebrity to work in dissing religion or composing a gutsy feminist screed like "Woman Is The Nigger Of The World", Jackson gave us insidious fluff and candy, complete with tricky dance moves. I can't think of a single substantive contribution he made toward advancing this culture during his lifetime, a period which fairly screamed out for all the help it could get from anyone with a microphone. No, sorry, the moonwalk did not make us a better, more moral people. Even in Jackson's most obvious potential arena for political leadership - the question of race - his preeminent contribution seems to have been reminding people across the globe that black is not beautiful, and that those who can afford to should follow his lead in trying to become more white.
Ostensibly, both Lennon's "Imagine" and Jackson's "We Are The World" have a common theme. In reality, they couldn't be further apart. Where Lennon offered a work of beautiful simplicity that called for the eradication of tribalism and superstition, Jackson's sing-along is really a paternalistic paean to self-reverence, clothed in the garb of a charity benefit.
Worse still, it's pablum, and it worships the very superstitions that Lennon sought to eradicate. In Jackson's anthem to the starving children of the world, we get this line: "We can't go on pretending day by day that someone, somewhere will soon make a change", directly followed - without the slightest sense of irony - by this one: "We are all a part of God's great big family and the truth, you know love is all we need".
Sorry. I guess I do sound like an old geezer, after all, romanticizing how it was so much better back in my day.
But, you know what? Take a look around.
It was so much better then.