The Campaign Spot

Michael Jackson and the Birth of Celebrity Culture

Last Thursday, Cam and I were having our usual pre-show get-together, and faced a bit of a dilemma. His program focuses largely on Second Amendment issues, sometimes venturing into bits of news that illustrate examples of great personal responsibility or great personal irresponsibility. Yet hours earlier, the world had learned about the death of Michael Jackson, and undoubtedly, that was the news that many were thinking about and talking about at that moment.

We eventually noted that while a lot of figures added to our national obsession with celebrities over the past three decades, Michael Jackson had a large and central role in the shaping of our culture. Whether he aimed to or not, the course of Jackson’s life ended up reinforcing the concept that the famous are entitled to different standards of behavior because of their fame and fortune.

Before the Era of Michael Jackson, American had seen celebrities engage in bad behavior or face accusations of it — Johnny Cash’s run-in with the law over drugs, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Roman Polanski, even going back to “Fatty” Arbuckle. We’ve had public figures act bizarrely — Howard Hughes refusing to come out of his screening room, Greta Garbo’s fear of public attention, Salvador Dali’s artwork and behavior, etc.

#more#But Michael Jackson’s fame, particularly post-Thriller, seemed to take superstardom to a whole new level. Once he had spent 37 weeks at the top of the Billboard chart, he was in uncharted territory. Bit by bit, year by year, the world watched the most popular musician in the world behave in an ever-stranger manner: The plastic surgery, the rumor of the hyperbaric chamber, building Neverland Ranch, the crotch-grabbing Super Bowl halftime show, dangling the child from the balcony . . . Michael Jackson took celebrity eccentricity to a whole new level. The eccentricities of Hughes and Garbo were that the public had a hard time seeing them; Jackson regularly emerged in some new and weirder manner. The unspoken lesson in each new jaw-dropping moment was, “I’m behaving this way, and no one can stop me, least of all myself.”

There didn’t seem to be anyone around him who could ask him if he was all right, to let him know he was acting strangely, childishly, impulsively, self-destructively. Either no one volunteered to be his tether to reality or he would not accept one. The disturbing implication in recent days is that those who ought to be most concerned about his well-being, his family, were more concerned with his status as a cash generator than whether he was a happy, healthy person.

Once your culture has determined that celebrities can behave in such a bizarre manner without consequence, it’s really not a long distance from there to “even though my workplace and home are protected by armed security guards, I don’t believe that ordinary citizens should be allowed to own guns.” Once you’ve endorsed the concept of one set of rules for the “special” people, another set of rules for everyone else, it becomes harder and harder to demand any meaningful sense of egalitarianism.

If the world had not averted its eyes from Michael Jackson having a close friendship with a chimpanzee named Bubbles, would we ever have come to this point, this current sense of “normal” behavior from celebrities? Would Prince have ever changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol? Without Michael Jackson, how would we have reacted to the phenomenon that became Dennis Rodman? Amy Winehouse? Would we have the self-destructive slow-motion car crashes of Britney Spears, Lindsey Lohan, and Paris Hilton without Michael Jackson first treading that path?

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