books

Starts off dark, ends up very pallid

This author proves she just doesn't have the stomach for all the Jacko ickiness

January 30 2006
books

Starts off dark, ends up very pallid

This author proves she just doesn't have the stomach for all the Jacko ickiness

January 30 2006

Starts off dark, ends up very pallid

This author proves she just doesn't have the stomach for all the Jacko ickiness

books

Years ago, Liz Smith, the doyenne of New York gossip columnists, printed a short item heralding Hilton Kramer’s forthcoming biography of Lana Turner. Miss Turner was the legendary sexpot of the silver screen and Mr. Kramer was then the eminent art critic of the New York Times and not the most obvious biographer of the former. But, when you make your living from name-dropping, it can’t always be easy dropping them in the right order: pace Miss Smith, Hilton had no plans to write a bio of Lana, though the following day he found some words of encouragement scrawled in lipstick on the glass of his office door, apparently from Miss Turner herself.

But times change, and now, when one reads of a new book about Michael Jackson by a celebrated New York Times cultural critic, it would be a foolish reader who assumed it was merely a mistake. Naturally, as a distinguished woman of letters, Margo Jefferson is not writing merely on the wackiness ofWacko Jacko but on the cultural significance of the wackiness thereof. Hence, the title: Margo Jefferson On Michael Jackson. Not literally, of course. Few, if any, ladies are known to have assumed that position: though Mr. Jackson (wearing a surgical mask over his surgical mask) was present at the birth of his children, whether he was also there at the conception remains a matter of conjecture. His two sons, incidentally, are both called Prince Michael. In return, Jermaine Jackson upped the ante and named his own son Jermajesty.

Whoops, there I go lapsing into Entertainment Tonight fascinating factoids. Titlewise, Ms. Jefferson is On Michael Jackson in the sense of a 19th-century scholarly monograph. A handful of thematic essays, the book is very small and very slim: if it were one of Michael’s friends, it would be the young Macaulay Culkin rather than the middle-

BY MARK STEYN

aged Liz Taylor. But it brims with cultural significance. “There is nothing natural about the making of child stars,” writes the author. “They are little archaeological sites, carrying layers of show-business history inside them, fragments of history and tradition.” Lovely stuff, isn’t it? But isn’t there less to it than meets the eye? Isn’t that just a fancy way of saying you can place every new star in the context of his predecessors? And, come to think of it, isn’t that true of pretty much

Hence Margo Jefferson 'On Michael Jackson.'Not literally, of course. Few, if any, ladies are known to have assumed that position.

everything? Isn’t your Toyota Corolla a little archaeological site, carrying layers of car-industry history inside it, fragments of history and tradition? On the whole, I prefer straightforward celebrity obsession to prettified metaphorical celebrity obsession. Too often, the latter’s an archaeological dig in an empty hole. You’ll recall that, during the trial of O.J. Simpson, Mr. Jackson’s forerunner as culturally significant celebrity defendant, his attorney compared the Los Angeles Police Department to Adolf Hitler. As points of historical reference go, that seems relatively modest when you consider that one early piece on the O.J. case by a New York Times colleague of Ms. Jefferson managed to haul

in Jean Genet, Dostoevsky, Milton, Shakespeare and Sophocles. Or as the deathless prose of Newsweek put it: “Was this another case of power/money/fame’s wretched song of impenetrability?”

For all his wretched songs, it’s the impenetrability of Michael Jackson that fascinates. Let’s take it as read that the default mode of a celebrity is weird. Why wouldn’t it be? Nobody treats them normally except in respect of their abnormalities. For example, a couple of years back, Jacko visited Britain accompanied by Omar Bhatis, a 12-year-old boy who came first in a Michael Jackson look-alike contest in Norway. If you checked into the Saskatoon Econo Lodge with a prepubescent look-alike wearing matching white gloves and surgical masks, the gal at the front desk would give you the fish eye and buzz the house detective. But at the Dorchester in London it’s not a problem—if you’re a pop star.

There are some rare exceptions to the celebrity-weirdsmobile rule: by the time I met Frank Sinatra, no one had treated him normally for half a century yet he was the most non-abnormal superstar you could imagine—stable, grounded, real friends, three kids who all turned out cheerful and well balanced', several wives all of whom speak very highly of him, as do most of the one-night stands. But, other than that, the A-list celebs are the latter-day equivalent of Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria or the loopier Ottoman sultans, the ones it wasn’t safe to leave alone

with sharp implements. Certainly, mere royalty can no longer expect such deference. A visitor from planet Zongo who caught, say, ABC’s Diane Sawyer interviewing Barbra Streisand and some surly BBC hack interviewing the Prince of Wales would have no doubt which was the regal personage. When I try to visualize Michael Jackson being “normal,” I think of my friend Don Black, lyricist of Born Free and Diamonds Are Forever and also Jacko’s first big solo hit, Ben. Don’s married to his childhood sweetheart Shirley— they grew up together in the East End of London—and he’s famously one of the sanest men in showbiz. Michael used to go round and see them at their pad in Hollywood and Shirley would put on a nice cuppa tea for him and Michael would make some fey zonkedout observation and Don would respond with one of his old London music-hall gags and they’d play snooker with Don’s teenage boys. And you realize that, in the end, even for the most famous and famously damaged celebrities, wackiness is a choice.

Ms. Jefferson, in her search for meaning, does not alight on kings or sultans, though Jacko’s friendship with and increasing financial dependence on the goofier members of the House of Saud would certainly justify the comparison. Instead, she meanders entertainingly through other byways. Her opening essay, “Freaks,” is a tour of some of those “fragments of history”—P.T. Barnum, Tom Thumb, the Khan of Kashagar, Sir James Barrie and Peter Pan... Of course, these references don’t require that much of an archaeological excavation. Jacko has been cheerfully upfront about his obsessions with Barnum and Peter Pan, and the author is happy to take him at his word. And, in doing so, she reminds you that Jacko is as much about allusion as illusion. Even at his peak—the Thriller videos, two decades back—he was mostly an artful mélange of pop culture poses: the hoofer’s hat, the Fosse gloves, the Sgt. Pepper uniform... Surely the only thing sadder than living in a fantasy world is living in a second-hand fantasy: Neverland.

Indeed, that may be the only real “significance” in Michael Jackson’s degeneration. The release of Thriller—the world’s alltime biggest-selling album—marked the apogee of big-time universal youth culture and poor Jacko became the living embodiment of pop’s paradox, corporately gargantuan and eternally infantile. After Thriller, Bad was considered a flop, though what wouldn’t be? If Jackson’s weirdness symbolizes anything, it’s the insanity of an industry where selling 25 million copies makes you a loser. While Ms. Jefferson works hard to link him to Shirley Temple and Sammy Davis Jr., you could argue that, in fact, he’s the perfect shorthand for pop history: in splendid contrast to Little Richard and Pat Boone, he’s the first black star to become his own lucrative white cover version.

That’s what happens to Margo Jefferson’s

A-list celebs are latter-day equivalents of the loopier Ottoman sultans, the ones not safe to leave alone with sharp implements

book, too. It starts off dark and ends up very pallid. And by the final section on last year’s trial she hasn’t got the stomach for all the ickiness. “Is it possible that Michael Jackson sexually engages children? Yes. He compulsively reimagines the violation of his own innocence, then purifies himself with kind, caring acts. But isn’t it just as possible that he is asexual? That he basks in that innocence and shelters it just as compulsively—that he is tempted but resists time and again? He sets the scene of his own violation, repeats the scenario but rewrites the ending. He rescues himself and the child. And yet, he experiences the excitement—the eros—of being tempted.”

Could be. And if I’m ever found in bed with an eight-year-old boy I’ll certainly be calling Ms. Jefferson as an expert witness. M