Stranded in New York under 26 inches of snow two weeks ago, I was left sitting at home in front of a TV that offered little other than its deluge of Jackson specials. So, being lazy, I watched. And I was intrigued. It occurred to me that the self-proclaimed king of pop is the personification of so many annoying and harmful American trends.
As seen on ABC’s ratings winning showing of the British documentary “Living with Michael Jackson,” the performer is obsessed with children and childhood. He thinks he’s Peter Pan, climbs trees and lives in his self-made Neverland. This is not just a “Saturday Night Live” writer’s dream come true — it also shows the rather annoying and unrealistic trend of childhood worship. Jackson repeatedly talked of the innocence of youth, but that’s a middle-class myth.
We forget that for many, childhood is not or was not like this. My grandmother started working at 14. Many poor kids today become instant adults having to care for younger siblings or take on jobs after tragedies of circumstance or happenstance. We have come to believe that children are precious little projects to be worked on and perfected and that childhood needs to be preserved as long as possible. Heck, Jackson’s has lasted 44 years. It’s the product of a society that fears old age like the plague, rather than respect the wisdom that comes from life experience.
Playing into our fears of tainted youth was the abuse hysteria of the ’80s and early ’90s. Jackson is cagy about the alleged abuse he suffered as a child, but it is clear that he uses it, at least in part, as an excuse for his erratic, unusual behavior.
I do not mean to belittle the problem of abuse, but we have become a society of excuse-makers rather than problem-solvers. Therapy has often been focused on trying to find the root cause rather than solve a patient’s current issue. This leads to the 1993 allegations against Jackson that he molested a young boy. True or not, it does not matter. Rather, it shows that, as a nation, nothing scares us more than pedophilia. We live in a culture of fear, and our youth-obsession is a big part of it.
Aside from his love of youth and the young, Jackson also loves his money. The documentary shows him going into a store full of fancy ornaments, structures and objects and pointing to the garish and expensive sculptures like a kid in a candy store. “I want that one,” he’d say as he pointed to a Greek-style pillar, “oh, and that” as he points to a gaudy sarcophagus at a non-gaudy price. His wallet-bending performance cost him a cool $1 million.
The difference between Jackson and the kid in the candy store is that there was no mom to take his hand and say, “no, honey.” That seems to be the true American Dream — point and buy power.
As much as he’d like to hide in a tree from all society, he cannot avoid the public. He is one of the most recognizable people in the world, but why? His bizarre appearance is a sure reason, but what is it about this singer who hasn’t had a hit in a decade that causes grown men and women to weep with joy in his presence? Why the hysterical crowds all over the world, and the fans who defend him against every valid or unfounded media attack? Why is this disturbed man such an American hero? Shouldn’t we have better idols in this post-September 11, war-threatened world?
And then there’s that pesky business of his appearance. “People change,” he says in defense of his altered cheeks, lips, jaw, dimples and skin color, not to mention his nose, to which he conceded two surgeries. He is the embodiment of Western obsession with appearance. He talks about how his father made fun of his wide nose. Why do we care so much about such things –more so than other cultures? There are more answers to that question, but needless to say, he is an unintentional satire of American self-consciousness.
I guess I expect too much from a society that loves to peer into the lives of such characters as Joe Millionaire and Ozzy Ozbourne, and listen en masse to the black and white thinking of Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and President Dubya. But maybe that’s unfair. Maybe we just need new icons.
Bobkoff is a sophomore and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.