Michael Jackson, Perfect “God” for the Media Age

On the afternoon of June 25, 2009, Michael Jackson died after collapsing in his Los Angeles home. Having been referred to as Satan or God, infallible magician or disturbed pervert, expressions of devotion, gratitude, despair, and disgust—not to mention the focus on his body and funeral—suggest that MJ’s passing constitutes a religious event. While nearly every decision and event since his death has been documented, analyzed, and picked over, this read of his life and passing has remained underappreciated, if not overlooked altogether. So RD has convened a roundtable of religion scholars to discuss the potential religious significance of the life, work, and death of one of the most influential pop stars of all time.

Why do we care about Michael Jackson? What does he have to do with religion?

Kathryn Lofton: We care about Michael because once upon a time, we all (boys, girls, queers, blacks, whites, mutts, young, old, ceaselessly adolescent) have been on a dance floor, surprisingly unembarrassed by ourselves because of him. His music wasn’t cool or removed or impossible to access. It was, precisely because of his ambiguous identity, all-access. The sound was its own equalizing space; and for religionists, this is a tempting thing, since it suggests sacred sanctuary. I’m less convinced that there is much to be said about his personal religiosity or the religious content of his songs, since I see both subjects as limited in their documentation and complexity. But maybe my forum colleagues can convince me otherwise?

Anthea Butler: We care about Michael because his life has been lived out in the public eye. No matter what sex, or ethnicity, everyone can identify with a painful childhood. Michael’s pain of a truncated childhood and the need to be liked and loved attracted people to him, but at the same time drove him. He modified his body to an unnatural degree, drove himself to create his own perfect family, and perhaps to cross lines that for most, were uncrossable.

Michael’s life in a sense, was like a religious quest. In order to obtain perfection, he engaged in bodily modification/mortification, pushed his music to the brink, and tried to surround himself with people and things that could transport him from the harshness of reality and rejection. The restlessness of his situation, the searching for perfection in the dance, the voice, and all of his performances suggest that for Michael the stage was the temple, the outlet to transcend an off-stage life that was fraught and lonely. His story, like many religious tales, is one of reaching for the immortal, but finding that the mortal was very difficult to escape from.

Gary Laderman: For some people, the music itself is religious. Why? It can transport people, temporarily bring them out of normal, mundane time and space, and bring joy, inspiration, escape, fulfillment, and satisfaction that is physically tied to the sounds, the voice, the production, the body, yet is so much more than all those material factors together. There is something “more” in his music than just pop.

For some people, his life story is religious. Not so much about Christianity in his life, or his time as a Jehovah’s Witness, or his turn toward Islam. Maybe more like Elvis, or even Oprah, his life story now in death has a moral valence… about overcoming life’s obstacles and finding success, about how certain, unique individuals are destined for fame and fortune, about uniting people into fan communities who look to the charismatic figure for meanings and values, about being human with weaknesses and vulnerabilities, but also being superhuman and immortal in the eyes of devoted fans who invest body and soul in their idols.

For some, his death unleashed floodgates of emotions and memories that demand collective ritual action and participation in ceremonies that honor and glorify the man and his music. All of the memories we’re hearing about, all the events and ceremonies taking place around the world, the obsession with how he died and the fixations on his life, contributions and controversies—when you look at all of this sweeping the world in the days after his death, how could anyone conclude it is anything but religious life in full bloom. What else could it be?

Have you been reading the various comments on this throughout the Web and around the globe? Some people are claiming all the hype is a clear sign that Satan rules the world, that MJ is not only not deserving of all this adulation, he is, even worse, some kind of monster that represents the golden calf rather than a human truly worthy of respect. But others, many others, write about cherished memories, about profound impressions that will last a lifetime, about worldly impact that is so inexpressible, so indescribable, so monumental that the world itself has been transformed by his presence. Sound familiar? The sacred is nothing if not a contentious battle over who’s got the right religion, and who’s got it wrong.

How do we reconcile the high-profile—and highly disputed—pedophilia cases (the first was settled out of court, and he was acquitted of all charges in the second) and the subsequent payoff to the alleged victim? Are our celebrities free of sin?

KL: I am unconvinced scholars of religion—or, indeed, anyone without legal training and familiarity with the case—should speculate about these proceedings or the payoff. The most difficult thing to do when studying celebrity is not to become suckered by the insistent truth claims of that most undocumented, disputed medium: the tabloid press. So without knowing about the case or the actual payoff agreement, I think the most interesting thing to observe is what it means to us to consider the symbolism of a payoff, or the symbolism of a trial. On both scores, I’d say the consumers are complicit in the construction of whatever sin or redemption unfolds, and while such plotlines may tell us something about our theologies, they tell us precious little about the celebrity’s.

AB: I’m not sure there is any reconciling it… especially since there are some Web rumors that Jordan Chandler, who received the payoff, is saying now that his father made him lie. What I do think is interesting is not so much the legal process that found him not guilty in the second case, but how both fans and detractors exercise moral judgments when their icons have failings. Of course celebrities do things wrong. Sin, perhaps, is the Judeo-Christian formulation for wrongdoing, but when so many people allow you to do whatever you want because you have money, why are we surprised when a celebrity’s moral compass shifts and bad behavior is practiced publicly or exposed?

In Michael’s case, I would suspect that he was abused (beaten physically, not sure about sexually, but his behavior certainly points to the possibility). On the other hand, I think how people view the pedophilia issue is a generation gap for sure. Younger people I’ve spoken to think he’s a perv of the highest order: all they can remember are the payouts, melting face, Bubbles [MJ’s chimpanzee and close companion until he was relocated due to increasingly aggressive behavior, which is common] and the weirdness with the kids. Folks who remember Michael before the crazy (and especially Michael as a younger child) tend to be more empathetic, but still think he’s flawed.

Finally, I think the religion of celebrity has embedded within it the requirement that the celebrity misbehaves. If they don’t, there is nothing to preach or write about! It’s like one of my favorite lines in a Depeche Mode song: “I give in to sin/Because you have to make this life livable.”

GL: If we’re quoting lyrics, I’d throw in “Sin City” by the Flying Burrito Brothers: “This old town’s filled with sin/It will swallow you in/If you’ve got some money to burn.”

All this talk about sin is making me nervous… it’s just too Christian. Yet, of course, perfectly appropriate for this discussion, and I think my colleagues are right on the money in their remarks. We are no longer a Christian nation, but Christian sensibilities surely color the way we understand and narrate these kinds of stories in popular culture. Sin, yes, but forgiveness a must; especially for our high-profile heroes and idols. Elvis, Marilyn, Jimi, Kurt, Michael: the list is long, but one thing they all share is that for many they are the embodiment of sin and moral corruption.

But to others their weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and transgressions make them simultaneously more human and more worthy of not just forgiveness but superhuman veneration. Isn’t that part of the process of deification? To forgive any sins and take the whole life story after death (now operating as myth rather than simply biography) as additional evidence of being chosen or destined for the contributions made to culture? This to me is one of the telltale signs of sacred life: what is sacred to some is seen as the most abominable profanation to others. Didn’t (gulp) Jesus arouse some conflicting perspectives in his day and after his death?

I don’t want to discount these concerns, and they certainly will be expressed again and again by many, outraged over the degree of sorrow and reverence being shown to Jackson. But ultimately, the impact of his life and music on people is too deep and vast to be diminished by these questions, as well as others likely to surface (don’t get me started on sacred medicine…).

Maybe we should all meet in Neverland, where there’s talk that his body will be put on display for the public?

The standard read of MJ is that he was desperate to be white. His skin (though he claimed—and Deepak Chopra confirmed—that vitiligo, an autoimmune disease, lightened his skin), his nose, lips, and hair changed markedly over time. Is it as simple as his being ashamed, or is there more to it? Talk about his relationships both to being black and to cultural notions of blackness in general.

KL: It is impossible to talk about blackness in this country without speaking about blackness in the white imagination. While Jackson’s racial psychology might present an interesting clinical case, at the level of its representative heft it seemed to track inversely a national discomfort. Even as the idea of blackness was diversified in the white imagination (through the political ascendancy of black leaders, the increase in black CEOs, and the multiplication of roles for African Americans in media and popular culture), MJ seemed to make himself the image of an oppressor that was no longer so obviously menacing.

Many scholars will, I imagine, frame MJ’s racial transformation as a rebuke, a morphing protest to any post-’60s liberal satisfaction. Just like eating disorders among adolescent women suggest to some the pervasive failure of feminism, so did MJ’s face make a mockery of movements in black liberation, with each edit suggesting he was held rapt by the bluest eye. Still, though, we must also ask: Why do we need him to be any one color? It’s too easy to call it self-loathing, and it’s also too neat to see it as performance art. In the in-between is reconstruction, a project that tempts more marveling at his physical publicity, and a culture that would watch such work with tabloid intrigue.

AB: Perhaps Quincy Jones said it better than I ever could: “It’s ridiculous, man! Chemical peels and all of it. And I don’t understand it. But he obviously didn’t want to be black.”

It’s more than being ashamed. It is a perfectionist strain that has haunted MJ; not just in his music, but in his appropriation of his looks. Michael said that his brothers teased him about his nose, and his father claimed that his looks did not come from him (ick. He is a nasty man). I think for Michael, the messages from his family about his looks, and a difficult puberty and teenage years all combined to create some self-loathing on his part. Once all of that had been internalized, the leap to turning into a more acceptable version of himself was only limited to the scruples of the surgeons he consulted. And who really knows what his “fantasy world” was like. With his predilection for Disney, Peter Pan and all of that, its not like that world was constructed by writers that were focused on “blackness”—except in denigrating ways.

On the other hand, what I find profoundly interesting is that even though he changed his phenotype, he leaned on his “cultural” blackness, even though he was a pop star. His dance moves, beats, themes of his music; all of it was out of a black cultural tradition that not even cosmetic surgery could erase.

Finally, what is most troubling, and more telling than his surgeries, is the fact that his “children” may not even have his (nor ex-wife Debbie Rowe’s) DNA. In his quest to become “white”, he even passed off his children as a creation of his own ideal of what he should look like. That to me, is much more troubling than the skin lightening. Michael was his own god, able to create his children “in his own image.” I have the feeling that the court case involving custody is going to set legal precedent, for sure.

GL: “I said if you’re thinkin’ of being my brother/it don’t matter if you’re black or white.”

I’ll have to defer to others about Michael Jackson’s psychological struggles with being black and the question of why he desired to alter his skin and facial structure to be more white. But in the aftermath of his death and the public clamoring to deify him or demonize him, one thing seems clear: Jackson’s mythological status as a sacred celebrity icon will only grow in power and profundity because of the ambiguities and contestations over the proper racial categories to use to capture his “true” identity. Like Elvis Presley, his musical output and influences transcend any racial essence that may or may not be tied to skin type or phenotype, nose size or family secrets.

Even though Jackson the performer became a global phenomenon, he is a product of American society and culture. While alive, race was surely a factor in his early childhood experiences, and shaped his rise from charismatic young singer in a black family to one of the most successful solo artists in world history. In death, his liminal standing between black and white cultures, masculine and feminine characteristics, younger and older generations through time, only make definitive interpretations of the real meaning of his life and contributions more difficult to pin down. The physical body is gone, the musical productivity has ceased, the capacity to speak for himself is no more, so Jackson now is a wonderfully ambiguous figment of our imagination, and for many millions of fans it does not matter if he was “black or white” because the impact of his life and music and moves and memory on their lives has nothing at all to do with “the standard read.”

Remember the episode on The Simpsons where Homer is placed in an insane asylum and his roommate is a 300-pound white guy who claims to be Michael Jackson? Homer brings him home after he is released, and though mischievous Bart disobeys his dad and lets the word out that Michael Jackson is on his way, the Springfield community congregating at the Simpson home is shocked when they see a non-skinny, non-black guy step out of the car. Still, this supposed impostor helps Bart write a touching song for his sister’s 8th birthday and proves, once again, how expectations around race and appearances can be trumped by talent and tenderness.

For what will he be remembered? For what should he?

KL: I have written about this elsewhere, but I do think the thing that will be remembered is his supernatural talent. If Madonna is a pop technician, Michael was a magician; competent not only with the tactics of pop pleasure but also its potential for mystery, wonder, and indescribable joy.

Most of the people I speak to speak about a Michael memory—of childhood, of the ’70s, of top-forty countdowns—and I imagine these will be the personal stories of his mythic perpetuation. Unfortunately he will also be seen as a piece of fame’s detritus, an icon of self-immolation. Whether or not this is an accurate rendering or just grotesque sacrifice is for other ethicists to dissect. I just ask, over and over, what pleasure we take in photographs of a man holding a baby over a balcony, carrying umbrellas in reasonable climates, or of shape-shifting noses? Instead of asking only why he did it, we too must ask why we look.

AB: I think Michael should be remembered for both the pains and pleasure he brought. The pleasure of watching him dace, sing, and perform; the pain of watching him turn into some type of strange, ethereal character from a fantasy world; the confusion of fans trying to decide if such a soft-spoken, fantasy man-boy could be a calculating, stalking pedophile. Ever seeking, never finding, he seemed to always be looking for Neverland, not realizing it was a land he would never find here on Earth.

Michael’s comments about wanting to “bind his soul” to everything he created sums up his work. His soul, his presence, his visage was in every video and in his songs. Although I do think most of the coverage of his demise is overkill, it is clear that something has resonated for people in his death that we cannot overlook. He was really the first star to successfully converge video and music together to create a media legacy that lives on, even in the coverage of his funeral.

He has a visual record of his work that Elvis can’t even hold a candle to. He’s responsible for so many tabloid stories, exposés, legal machinations, and whatnot; it is hard to imagine any star right now generating this type of buzz ever again. And all of it was lived out in front of the camera. Finally, I do think Michael-as-seeker is the most important “religious” aspect that he brings to the table. The hopefulness, the Utopian visions of the world in his music, point to the hopes and dreams of people, especially the “nones” who do not find fulfillment in traditional religious expressions. In that sense, he was the perfect ‘god’ for the media age… always morphing, seeking the camera, and assuaging his loneliness by courting the one thing he always knew would be trained upon him: a lens.

GL: Michael Jackson will be remembered as a freak show, an artistic revolutionary, or a god, depending on who you ask. How is Elvis remembered? Lennon? Cobain? Hendrix? They’ve all entered the pantheon of celebrities who died too soon; who contributed something intangible to the history of music; who made an impact on people’s lives so dramatic and profound that communities of devotees are enriched and empowered in meaningful ways through memory and consumption of the living being and mythic idol. Who is to say that one or the other is deserving of this devotion, or that fans are misplacing genuine spiritual longing in trivial though glorified entertainers brought down to Earth by drugs or perversion or other forms of sinful self-destruction? Not me.

The music is ultimately what matters. Without music, Jackson, like the others, would be nothing; he’d be forgotten like the rest of us mortals who live and die without leaving much of a trace as the years go by. The music but also, I think, the fact that his life was cut short and that he left us too soon. Dying young pays immeasurable dividends in the spiritual transformation of mortals into gods. With all due respect to musicians like Bruce Springsteen or Paul McCartney or Mick Jagger, they are growing into old farts and if they pass out of this life after making it to the ripe old age of 80 or 90, having lived a full, long life, they will not get close to the level of devotion shown to someone like Michael Jackson, no matter how significant or profound their musical contributions.

Pete Townsend wrote, “Hope I die before I get old,” and now that he’s getting so old, when he does finally die, his aging generation will certainly mourn his death, but we will not see the worldwide expressions of sorrow and celebration surrounding his musical life. He is and will remain a legend, no doubt, but he will not be deified by millions as an immortal icon like Michael Jackson.

I’d like to end with RIP, Michael. But I can’t get out of my mind the Zombie-Jackson in the Thriller video. He’ll be back from the dead and won’t rest easy, I imagine.