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Fame, Fame, Fatal Fame – Michael Jackson And The Death of Global Super-Stardom

June 27th, 2009 | 22 Comments | Categories: Musing on Music · obituaries · Rant - Politics, Spirituality, etc. · tips for musicians |

The death of Michael Jackson – like so many celebrity deaths – has brought with it a swathe of responses, both from the public and in the media.

Anyone who ever met him gets dragged out to talk about ‘their relationship’, and anyone remotely famous who might have a connection (be it sharing the pop-charts with him in the 80s, that they at some point in the past expressed a liking for his music, or just happen to be famous and black) is door-stepped for their comment.

It’s a fairly unpleasant media feeding frenzy, but it’s definitely serving a voracious need amongst a large section of the populus to be handed a secular liturgy for mourning the death of someone that, while insanely significant in the history of popular music, hadn’t made a notable artistic contribution in 20 years, and was written off a few years ago as a freaky paedo that many people (without any real evidence or experience of the case) thought escaped jail on a technicality…

For all those of us who hadn’t seen him live in over a decade, only listened to his older records (or not at all), and whose main month to month awareness of his was the reports of his spectacular and mind-boggling financial collapse, the emotional outpouring seems to be more an expression of 3 things:

  • a desire for some kind of connection with *the thing that’s going on* – get our opinion in, be part of the public conversation, tell everyone you always thought he was a genius/freak/whatever.
  • a sadness – close to grief – for our youth (a deeper expression of the same thing that drives people to watch I Love The 80s)
  • a largely unarticulated – but it appears, deeply felt – sense of loss for the age when musical and media megastars could MEAN something. (Andrew Dubber mused on this on Twitter)

Michael Jackson in his day combined musical genius, innovation and fame-beyond-measure. He was a truly global phenomenon. Massive far beyond the reaches of late 70s Ameri-centric radio and the English-speaking world. Larger than life, weirder that weird, but astoundingly gifted. Ever since Off The Wall came out, generation after generation of kids have connected with his music (there’s something about his music that definitely – and in light of the court case from a few years back, disturbingly – connects with pre-teen kids more than almost any other soul/funk-based music).

His creative partnership with Quincy Jones, producer of Off The Wall, Thriller and Bad, produced some of the most iconic moments in the pop canon, but since Bad, he’s produced little that’s considered musically significant (I saw him live in the late 90s, when I interviewed his bassist, Freddie Washington for Bassist Magazine – outstanding show, but definitely all about the decade-plus old hits).

So what do we get out of grieving?

What are the questions we need to ask about the impression we had of him, the false feeling of connection we had with him as a person through his music and the press, and our complicity as part of a media-hungry world that fueled his madness (largely, it seems attributed to a seriously screwed up relationship with his dad, but made worse by his fame-neccesitated isolation).

Neverland, bubbles, oxygen-tanks, Liz Taylor, plastic surgery, llamas, friendships with kids, that documentary… A life documented like a dystopic flip-side to the Truman Show, but one that destroyed him.

At the recent UnConvention conference in Salford, I was asked at the end of our panel on being ‘outside the box’ what my one piece of advice was for musicians looking at their place in the world of music. My comment was

‘it’s more important to be nice than it is to be talented’

if becoming a ‘great musician’, and more pertinently, a ‘famous musician’ turns you into a reclusive lunatic, your priorities are screwed. Quit music, get a job in a bookshop, and leave fame to those whose narcissism is so overpowering they’ll pursue it to their own death.

Michael was rightly celebrated for his musical contribution, but his fame and its destructive influence on his life was out of all proportion to that (how could any music possibly live up to that??) – his public persona was a media-created 2-headed chimera: musical deity and social demon, invented to seed the front pages with stories between the album releases. If the next album’s a turkey, who cares, we’ve got pics of him in an oxygen tent, kissing a monkey dressed in tiny human clothes! Win!

Fame is the downside to success, and the way it removes the consequences from ones actions means that people like MJ who desperately needed help to recover from his screwed up childhood-in-the-spotlight never got it. If you’re heading towards it, in the words of Monty Python’s Holy Grail, “Run away! Run away!”

Or, indeed, put another way:

“For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?”

Nothing is worth that.


So, commenters – fame, celebrity, talent… where does it all go from here? What does a tale like this mean for those of us working in music, and using social media to break down the myths around our lives? Is ‘accessibility’ just another myth, once you get beyond a certain as-yet-undefined number of pseudo-personal connections? Have at it!

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22 Comments so far ↓

  • gareth wong

    My first time visit to your blog post ever Steve, despite we met a few weeks back, glad I did.

    great thought provoking posts.

    but is it not the reverse might also be true?

    where if he had stayed and not to nurture/grow his talent(s).. he might just have stayed into obscurity or in fact joined gangs & become another types of statistics?

    Sadly, I don’t think any of us has answers of what is right or wrong. As we can only measure it based on what we think (now), which might transpires to be different based on different understanding in the future years.

    One thing might stay constant, which is that people need goals & drivers and friends & families to support them & keep them ‘grounded’.

    There might also be junkie, paedo bookshop keepers or gardeners.. who without fame, celebrity status does more harms than good!?

    which might also mean that its better these guys/girls uses/nurtures their talents and harness the potential powers and contribute to their fields, literature, art, music, creative areas.. ?

    just a different thought..

    @GarethWong

  • Mikael Suomela

    As I’ve talked to non-musos during my guitarist life the first thing they usually ask do I play with someone famous. People seem to equate fame as being good and chart positioning as sort of “consumers choice”.

    MJ was truly popular and it seems that in the musician community too there is a sense of loss. Quite a many muso friends of mine put in their Facebook statuses “RIP MJ”. I tend to think that musos too would like to aspire to the wealth and fame of MJ – or be associated in their careers by someone as good and succesful as MJ was. Freelance musos would all want to be like Jennifer Batten or John JR Robinson who got extremely interesting and lucrative gigs with MJ…

    We all know there is a downside to fame. You gotta keep up your image, you’re locked to your past and yes, people really like to disparage famous people. Some people manage to navigate being publicly known better than others.

    Anyway, let’s be real here. We all are working because of our reputation and being known to some – or to many. We, by our profession, are a public lot. So fame is important to all of us. The thing is to somehow to try and have a life that’s not too easily torn apart and to keep a cool head.

  • Terence Eden

    I’m obviously an emotional cripple.

    Did I like MJ’s music? Yes – what I heard of it formed the soundtrack of my youth.
    Was I aware of who he was and what was happening to him? With wall to wall media coverage – of course.
    Did I feel close or in some way “connected” to him? Not in the slightest.

    His death has bought out the “Now Magazine” freak in a lot of otherwise sensible people. Fame is used as an excuse for bullying. “Popular girl has a bit of cellulite”, “man trips over after having a drink”, “this one is getting above herself”, “HATE HATE HATE”. You made the popular, you raised them high above simply so you could look at their knickers and complain about what you saw.

    If you find yourself worrying about how Brad is treating Jen, or if Kerry has an eating disorder, or if Dot will ever reconcile with Nick – SEEK HELP.

    These people aren’t your friends. I’d even argue that they’re not real people with real problems. They’re a sideshow designed specifically to make you have an emotional reaction in order to get you to spend your money.

    I’m a big Beatles fan (cue howls of outrage from “proper” musicians) and when George Harrison died, do you know what I felt? Sorrow. Sorrow that I’d never see him live and never hear any new music – in short, I was sorry for myself.

    Compare that to when a relative of mine died. I was sorry for my loss, but I felt more sorrow for his friends & relatives that I knew.

    Is the collective ejaculation of tears a display of true misery or a desire to be seen as part of the tribe of “normal” people.

    The “mourning” of Michael Jackson is just a public display of grief that the voyeurism must come to an end. It helps mask the guilt that it was only ever a one-way friendship – and a pretty abusive one at that.

  • Phil Wain

    Notwithstanding Michael’s undeniable talent (especially as a dancer) I think you’ve hit several nails proverbially on the head here. The media frenzy has been hard to take, I’ve been avoiding the TV as much as possible. People have generally been mourning the loss of their own youth. Michael has been a sad, sick man for a long time.

    Here in the material West, death is a hated enemy which we avoid talking about and Michael, as Peter Pan, represented that fear of ageing to a lot of people. They long for that time when they heard his music and his music dominated.

    It becomes more about what Michael symbolises than his music. Hence his importance to black artists as the first black global music superstar.

    Fame destroys and only those with a strong faith (of any persuasion) and the right people around them are not worsened by the process.

    The weird thing to me is that I’ve rarely heard any of his music in public for years – even the older good stuff. A lot of people are going on about how great his music was that having been listening to it and playing it for ages. Only his death has led to his music being everywhere.

    Now his death may prove a signifier of the death of the corporate music industry, might hopefully make fame look less attractive to youngsters and has really shown us how slow, late and irrelevant the majority of TV news hads become.

  • Patrick

    I am continually dismayed by the vicarious interest shown in the deaths of famous people: an (former?) pop star – a strange, sad, cypher – dying can’t have been the most important thing that happened in the world, but yesterday it was the headline on BBC radio news for more than twenty four hours.

    I believe it reflects our strange obsession with celebrity – the Diana effect: someone we didn’t know and, frankly, probably wouldn’t like if we did – someone famous for being famous – dies and suddenly we feel connected. Well, like Terence, I don’t.

    It is strange that we clearly need to feel connected in this way.

    Thing is, I too think his classic albums are brilliant – great dance music, great videos (possibly as much down to Quincy’s genius and video directors’ as Jackson’s – was he just the performer, or did he add more?). But, well, whilst his music made an impact on me, he didn’t.

    I believe the public – and I guess it must be worldwide – reaction reflect an unfulfilled spiritual need that isn’t being met (and which I don’t believe I share). And I’m not sure what it has to do with the man’s music.

  • Mike R

    I think it’s interesting that we’re focussing on Talent. Does anyone think of him as gifted?

    I think the idea of gifting, or being gifted should make one humble, but often doesn’t. In fact it’s usually what drives the personality cult and expands into the modern media machine, this idea of the gifted genius – which we all take part in (“Oh my god, he so gifted! “)

    There’s much to be said for the old maxim about not believing your own hype, but for someone like him who came to fame so early it must have been a tough one to say the least.

  • Ann Light

    I wouldn’t have had to comment on this if there weren’t wall to wall attention paid – out here in India the coffee shops have been showing VH1 with its videos flanked by mega-statistics. But the ubiquity of his death has had an impact that led me to seek out informed debate.

    Not so with George Harrison, whom I too, Terence, mourned, though I’d put the sadness down to the respect I had for what he’d quietly achieved and supported over the years (HandMade brought me as much pleasure as The Beatles…) and, yes, my sense of loss that there would be no more. Perhaps more homage (and the sadness that is the flipside of the beautiful) than self-pity?

    But Michael Jackson wasn’t about creative activity any more, even if they are now harking back to his great musical successes. He was about big business and financial mismanagement. And what he was most profoundly, for me, was a person who could not reconcile himself to the fact that money still leaves you as who you are.

    Last night a friend in Bangalore told me that in India someone’s ad campaign ran a few years ago with … following MJ as he grew from a young black boy to an old white woman.

    For me he was all about self-hatred. Talent and money and the freedom these might have brought were useless to him. I have always felt sad for Michael Jackson. Not especially now that he’s found some peace from his quest to be someone else.

    The fad to modify oneself alarms me – see this – and if MJ has scared one person off that kind of meddling, then his loss is the greater. Why isn’t anyone talking about that?

  • Ernesto Schnack

    The times have definitely changed. I don’t think that kind of fame is possible anymore, simply because for it to work, the artist need to seem larger-than-life.

    A friend of mine put it perfectly: “Michael Jackson dies. Now I finally know he’s human.”

    And that just doesn’t happen anymore. Didn’t MJ’s decline start around the same time the Internet started to become popular? Coincidence?

    Just the other day I was watching the new Iron Maiden documentary…it amazed me how amazingly popular they became with little if any radio airplay, and keeping their lives fairly private. Nowhere near MJ’s fame of course, but still…

    In Argentina they couldn’t go out of their hotel without being mobbed, yet they all seem pretty down-to-earth and sensible.

    If your already messed up, then fame and success will only amplify that. But if you know who you are and keep a clear head, then I think you can manage it to a certain degree.

    Radiohead is another example of a band that seems to have handled success fairly well.

  • darkbeliar

    hey steve,

    we all will die too, a fact that is true only for others.
    in death were all equal, but in life we are (appreciate-able) not.
    so life is not about being equal but all about stretching its habitat, the volume of ‘ways of life’.
    that means by my definition fame people as mj are a great contribution to life (no pity) – stretching the web on one edge,
    as well as all authetic and ‘peace of mind’ people – stretching the web on the opposite edge.
    so different but yet the very same.

    i know stretching something that will end anyway isnt the wisdoms last conclusion,
    but fame per se isnt worse than an ordinary life and to feel pity for mj is wrong. thats my point.

    and to trade ones soul for status, money, fame or power is a tale,
    which only was invented for fear.

    hug,
    michael

    now please deliver the penny!

  • Rachel Andrew

    My 12 year old daughter goes to theatre school and hopes to have a career in the theatre. On Friday morning over breakfast we talked about Michael Jackson. Unprompted by me she said,
    “You know, I don’t want to be famous. I want people to think I’m good so I get good parts, but I don’t want to be famous.”
    Her role model is the actress Idina Menzel – my daughter thinks she gets to do great stuff, but is still a, “normal person who can do normal things”.

    I’m glad my daughter sees the difference between being successful and talented as a performer, and being ‘famous’. Especially when so many young people seem to just want to be famous, a celebrity, rather than doing something well which may or may not also bring fame. She sees the possibility of fame as almost a necessary evil of what she wants to do – it was an interesting conversation!

    Interestingly enough, from my experience, theatre school and being involved in the theatre from a young age can produce incredibly grounded kids. They know exactly how hard it is to succeed, they know how hard they have to work and they understand there are 1000s of people who are as talented as they are. They continue to do it because they love it and I have seen how genuinely happy her peers are when one of them gets a part in something – even when they were also up for the same thing.

  • Gwyn McVay

    I think there are massively different issues surrounding different Famous Musicians who die, and the subsequent public reactions. When Jerry Garcia died in 1995, not only did we not yet have Twitter and Facebook to overload with our grieving or snarky responses, but a great many people in different walks of life took it very, very personally, from then-President Clinton on down — and including Bob Dylan, a true muso for its own sake if I’ve ever spotted one (and a friend of Garcia’s).

    Why? We can speculate endlessly. Of course I was selfishly sad because I knew that the music and the community would never be the same. (It isn’t. The remaining bandmembers soldier on as “the Dead,” sans titular gratitude, but the better music is being made in their various side projects.) But a great many Dead Heads had also come to view Garcia as a sort of benign favorite uncle — a troubled one, but one who brought, dare I say, a real happiness to the people who heard his music. It was Sting who compared him to Father Christmas, having toured with him, and the view was shared by quite a lot of the groundlings.

    Garcia, of course, was no Michael Jackson, nor was meant to be. He actively shunned the fame Jackson courted — in the nascent stages of the Grateful Dead, critics had already begun pegging him as a leader, a role with which he was tremendously uncomfortable. He was almost purposely scruffy where Jackson was costumed, and at the end, Dead shows could be described as “six middle-aged hippies standing still, with a light show around them.”

    What they shared, along with fame, was passion for music, yet a deep discomfort inside. Garcia turned to narcotics to insulate him from the demands of more, more, more placed on him by fans, bandmates, followers, lovers, you name it. I have to wonder if, following his recovery from the Pepsi-commercial incident, Jackson didn’t stay on the painkillers for much the same reasons — to avoid dealing with a demanding and painful world, only with several times the paparazzi Garcia ever had to cope with.

  • Andrew Durkin

    Man, it’s such a relief to come across people having a grounded, sane conversation about this week’s events. The big media narrative, which of course completely avoids the idea of complicity (particularly big media complicity), instead treats Jackson’s death as a necessary, ritualistic, big-budget blood-letting, the sort of thing that is unpleasant but ultimately just another part of the music industry star system. And said system, of course, is (synecdochically) presented as if it were the whole of music. Ugh.

    Steve’s question — what does this portend, if anything? — is still basically unanswered, though, and that’s what frustrates me. For years it has felt like we’ve been seeing the slow creeping death of the bean-counting behemoth that helped to create Jackson and others like him. It’s not clear to me whether the spectacle of his death will help to continue that trend (if the lesson of how the industry destroyed Jackson sinks in, it might) or work to reverse it (how long before we have our next reality talent show: “Who wants to be the next Michael Jackson”?).

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  • steve

    Worth adding to the list of quality comments on MJ’s legacy, is this brilliant article by Pat Kane.

    Definitely one to read. I love Pat’s writing style.

  • Otir

    There might be a fourth type of meaning to the emotional outpouring that ensued Michael Jackson’s passing away for people of his generation (mine): seing ourselves aging and measuring up to how we navigated our own lives at the same time Jackson was burning up his.

    The mourning is not necessarily about an icon, because his contribution to pop music will remain in the memories and in the testament, but about the suffering that fame could not ease, like the dream pursued by a sad sad child, who can also be within us and he bore that for us.

  • Gordon Rae

    A very good piece, Steve, and I really appreciate your picking up on the distinction between talent and fame.

    When a famous musician dies, we all remember they record they made that touched our lives, and then we realise what a long time ago it was, and we can’t remember any good records they’ve made recently. (Sky Saxon died on Thursday, too, so I got my copy of ‘Nuggets’ out for a bop. )

    I’ve raised a couple of eyebrows among friends by not being too bothered by Jackson’s death, or surprised. Joe Strummer died of a heart attack at fifty; it’s what lots of middle-aged men do, alas.

    The mass hysteria is there for those that want it. I’ve already left a comment on The Play Ethic to say that I don’t think Jacko’s demise tells us very much about capitalism and consumerism, or anybody’s life apart from Michael’s. I thought the moonwalk flashmob events that sprang up were exactly the right way to remember Michael Jackson, and I’m happy for his records to take over the Top 40 for a few weeks.

    Talent. That’s the stuff.

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  • steve

    Gareth,

    “where if he had stayed and not to nurture/grow his talent(s)..

    fame has nothing at all to do with talent – nurturing talent is about education, encouragement and creativity, not being in the papers and selling millions of albums… Therein lies the problem – the suggestion that fame is somehow linked to creative output. the opposite is almost invariably true.

    there’s also a statistical side to this – being famous more consistently destroys people than not being famous (people who aren’t famous are often messed, but they aren’t messed up by not being famous, in the way that fame itself is a destructive force).

    Creativity is not mappable to positive character traits without some other metric of how that creativity is nutured. And the music industry is at the wrong end of the metrics. VERY few people that I’ve come across end up as nicer, more accountable, better integrated, less conflicted, more genuinely altruistic people as a result of their involvement with the music industry. the opposite, however, is incredibly common. That people with great intentions get sucked into the business side of the industry, but can’t separate the sellable myth of fame from their own reality, believe their hype, cease to be accountable for their actions and self-destruct…

  • steve

    Mikael,

    I think there’s a semantic distinction that needs to be drawn here between ‘fame’ and its related issues, and other measurements of success…

    We also need to look at motivation, and the way that the pursuit of fame changes our relationship with what we do. There have been, at various times in my career, opportunities presented to me to do something other than what I like doing, in exchange for massively increased visibility, money, whatever – probably not ‘fame’ in the broader general-public sense, but certainly a greater degree of ‘acclaim’ within the bit of the music world I’m in.

    Each time something like that came along, I weighed up the pros and cons, for me as a person as much as for my ‘career’, and considered the impact that people’s altered expections of ‘what it is that I do’ would have on my creative output and the tension between an audience wanting one thing, and me doing another…

    Multiply that by the pressure within the machine of a major record label, especially if you’re one of their priority artists, and you have a situation where maintaining any sense of creative autonomy is virtually impossible.

    I’m reminded of one of Bono’s rules for ‘rock stars’ – if you sit down to dinner at night, and everyone round the table is on your pay-roll, you’re probably an ass-hole, and no-one can afford to tell you.

    The relevant factors are scale, perspective, motivation, clarity and the presence of people who have no vested interest in telling you that you’re a genius, when in fact you’re a self-absorbed tool. As fame increases, the volume and significance of those voices diminishes, while their absolute importance increases exponentially if you have any hope of staying sane.

    Going back to your earlier example, I’d much rather be Jennifer Batten than MJ – Jennifer recently did a house concert tour with the awesome Vicki Genfan. MJ’s fame kept him away from such experiences, poor thing. I wouldn’t swap the gigs I’ve done with Vicki for any number of stadium gigs.

  • steve

    Gifted? As a teacher, I find the whole concept deeply unhelpful. It’s more often used as an excuse for not doing something, than an inspiration to carry on. It also doesn’t matter – do whatever you do because you love it and believe it has importance.

    If you’ve never had to practice *anything* to do with your art, and are still amazing at it, I’ll class you as an exception to my rule. But anyone who practices as hard as Michael did (as documented in any article about his childhood and his dad’s behaviour) has gone so far beyond the stage where any ‘natural’ gifting was measurable beyond the ‘benefits’ of hard graft.

    So, no, I don’t think he was gifted. I think he was dedicated. Almost certainly for all the wrong reasons.

  • steve

    Thanks Gordon,

    “I don’t think Jacko’s demise tells us very much about capitalism and consumerism, or anybody’s life apart from Michael’s”

    I think that’s selling short the strength of feeling that notions of ‘collective ownership’ of celebrity ephemera can dredge up – it might be utter bollocks, but it’s very strongly felt… Like the idea that non-racists can vote BNP out of mis-placed fear, that MJ can become a totem of something much bigger than ‘abused kid grows into emotionally regressed adult, makes a great records til his private life gets to weird it interferes with his creative process, world buys into the perfect combination of talent and freak-show, man becomes global megastar, then dies’ is I think a very valid point to make.

    The growth of of MJ’s ‘fame/celebrity’ (which happened a long time after his talent became evident to all who cared about soul music) did map incredibly well to the political and ideological shifts that happened at the end of the 70s/ beginning of the 80s. He was what punk was supposed to have swept away in 77/78, but by 82, Reagan and Thatcher were in power, and the hyper-modernity of Thriller, the slick sound, the cutting edge video and his profligacy and the emergence of stories about his bizarre private life was very much tied in, it seems to me, to the yuppie dream of the 80s – the prioritization of wealth-accumulation above all else, with a very apparent dark-underbelly of seclusion, self-loathing, and un-quenchable need for something that Michael had been robbed of before his age reached double-figures – perspective.

    Grieving the death of a pop star we didn’t know – especially one whose songs told us next to nothing about him – is very strange. But the fact that people do can be read on myriad levels.

    Let’s hope, as you so rightly say, that the focus is put back on talent, that MJ’s fame is seen as the downside to his talent having been shackled to the car-wreck of a life he lead…

  • Kevin Charles Dunford

    It’s been said before, but ‘Genius’ or ‘Natural Talent’ are expressions often used to define those that are prepared to work hard at their profession by those who are not.

    I applaud Michael Jackson for his early dedication to the music and performance he obviously so loved, the path of imitation, assimilation and his natural innovation produced what we saw. But all being told he really had no choice.

    I personally loved those classic albums, they gave those of us who rocked license to funk.