It’s strange but true: whenever there’s a Big Murder in America, and there’s an investigation and a scandal, most of the participants in the affair turn out to be nuts. And by “participants” I don’t just mean the victims and the culprits. I mean the witnesses, the members of the jury, the investigating officers, the eminent jurists, and the friends and relatives of all of the above, together with the throngs of dedicated spectators of the case.
The woman who was on a mule, chasing pig rustlers late at night, and just happened to hear the victim’s shrieks; the bosom buddies of the murdered man, who are now convinced that despite all evidence to the contrary, he is actually living abroad under another name; the victim’s physician, gardener, priest, and spouse, all of them hopeless embezzlers, drunks, or drug addicts, and all of them possessed of a motive to kill him; even the maids and chauffeurs and the guy who was tying his shoe next to the dumpster where the blood-stained cap was found – the landscape is littered with crazed eccentrics.
This has been true for as many years as Big Murders have been important in American culture. The pattern goes back for generations. It was strikingly visible in the O.J. Simpson case, but it had already appeared in the Hall-Mills case in 1922 and the Lizzie Borden case in 1892. Every episode like this presents a core sample of the American populace, and the results are not encouraging. A big murder case seems intended by God to emphasize the strangeness, the depressing oddity – not the inspiring individualism – of our fellow voters. And so does virtually any celebrity death.
On Thursday, June 25, Michael Jackson, singer and dancer, died in Los Angeles. I don’t know why he died, though I can guess, like everyone else. And I don’t care. Scores, maybe hundreds, of people die in Los Angeles every day, almost all of them more worthy of attention than Michael Jackson.
Jackson was an excellent dancer, but his dancing was nothing to compare with the performances of the truly great artists – Cagney, Astaire, Kelly, Sublett. There was never anything witty, spontaneous, ironic, self-expressive, or genuinely dramatic about Jackson’s act. He danced like a machine. He was even less interesting as a singer. He could always hit the notes that lay in his limited range, but he never recorded anything that wasn’t trash. His most popular efforts were preposterous trash: songs in which Jackson, who was manifestly gay, clutched his crotch and pretended to be a bad-ass straight; songs in which Jackson, a Jehovah’s Witness, urged cute gang- bangers to “beat it” rather than get themselves into a fight; songs in which Jackson, an “environmentalist” and “hunger advocate,” cashed in on sentimentality by getting other celebrities to chant a nauseating song called “We Are the World.”
No, you weren’t. You were just a pitiful little guy who was force-fed on celebrity, relished it, then spent your life trying to recreate the childhood that had been denied you, in payment for the celebrity. I don’t know whether Michael Jackson had sex with young boys, as was alleged. I do know that he was as ignorant as a rock, and a sad representation of what it means to be rich and famous – sad, that is, except to the significant proportion of Americans (and Europeans and Asians too) who on every available public occasion reveal that they too are seriously unbalanced.
These are the people who honored Michael, as they honored Princess Di – and, I guess, every other dead celebrity except Richard Nixon – by leaving teddy bears and candles and pictures of themselves and love notes and other trash at any convenient spot associated with the deceased. These are the people who besieged the hospital where he died, blocking its entrances to patients in need of help. These are the people who treated his little brass star on Hollywood Boulevard as if it were a religious shrine, kneeling in tears and leaving in hysterics.
Then there are all those others, people who aren’t really eccentrics but just play them on TV, having reached the opinion that everybody else is one, so that’s where the bucks are located. I refer to the celebrities and semi-celebrities who rushed to testify that Michael was the “greatest artist of the 20th century,” “the best-known person in the world,” “a man for whom we should all be thankful,” “a gift from God,” “a shy, sensitive young man,” “a great humanitarian,” and so forth and so on.
It seemed to make no difference to African-American talking heads – though it probably made a difference to a lot of African-Americans who didn’t have easy access to the media – that Michael was so freaked out by his ethnicity that he spent the second half of his life-transforming himself from a sexy black man into a grotesquely repulsive white man. It seemed to make no difference to gays-on-TV that he did everything he possibly could to deny being gay.
And listen: aren’t you tired of hearing Fox News categorized as the “right-wing network,” a site that broadcasts nothing but conservative and libertarian propaganda? During the Jackson mourning orgy, Fox was indistinguishable from CNN, except that maybe it was worse. It was all Michael Jackson, all the time, and day after weary day. At commercial breaks, Fox filled the TV box with the image of Jackson, his dates, and the kind of solemn music that my set hasn’t broadcast since the funeral of Konstantin Chernenko.
But to return. Before he was done, Michael Jackson had repudiated every aspect of his identity that he could manage to repudiate – his race, his sexuality, his age, his religion, his friends, his health, even the animals on which he was once renowned for doting – yet to hundreds of millions of people around the world, that meant nothing, because there was one aspect that he did not repudiate. He was a fool, and the fools recognized their own.