AN AMERICAN VIEW

The trouble with celebrity worship

Decent places all around America get in trouble by mistaking success for substance and allowing nonsense to masquerade as truth

FRED BRUNING July 17 1995
AN AMERICAN VIEW

The trouble with celebrity worship

Decent places all around America get in trouble by mistaking success for substance and allowing nonsense to masquerade as truth

FRED BRUNING July 17 1995

The trouble with celebrity worship

AN AMERICAN VIEW

Decent places all around America get in trouble by mistaking success for substance and allowing nonsense to masquerade as truth

FRED BRUNING

So now Michael Jackson is a social scientist. Here we see demonstrated one of the most baffling of American cultural mysteries. Someone strokes 30 home runs or makes a movie that earns the ultra-bucks, or, in Jackson’s case, achieves legendary status as a high-tech troubadour, and that person naturally assumes he is a philosopher king. Fans quickly toot the cornets. Long live fame! Long live celebrity! No one respects artists or writers or teachers or the clergy any more. They are relics from another era—linear holdouts in a digital time. You want heavy thinking, you now turn to a showbiz genius like Michael Jackson. And what do you get from Michael on, say, the vexing subject of ethnic stereotyping? You get a new album called History with lyrics like these:

Jew me, sue me,

Everybody do me;

Kick me, kike me,

Don’t you black-or-white me.

Then what happens? People yell that the poor guy is anti-Semitic, that he is an insensitive slob, that he has committed an unforgivable crime against civil behavior. As we all know, Jackson has had more than his share of image problems—from complaints that he lightens his skin to an unproven charge that he had sex with a little boy who stayed overnight. So, being no dope, Jackson was quick to retreat from his bold statement on the complexities of multiculturalism.

Gee, said the singer, he didn’t mean to offend anyone. He was denouncing racism, not endorsing it. Come on, gang, don’t you get it?

Sorry, America did not get it. Chastened again, Jackson promised to hustle back to the studio and record a more acceptable version of the song, They Don’t Care About Us. When he is finished, no one will have anything to complain about—except perhaps those romantic fools who still think words

should convey some sort of meaning. “Strike me, sue me” is the substitute Jackson is considering. “Kick me, like me.”

It is difficult to see exactly what has been accomplished. If Jackson was sincere about his desire to relieve group tensions in the United States, and if he thinks the original lyrics somehow succeeded in doing that— well, the singer should have stood his ground. By backtracking, Jackson seems to be either acknowledging an ugly racist streak or confessing that he is an amateur. In statements, Jackson gives the impression he views himself as neither bad guy nor boob. Mainly, he seems like a fellow who wants to get off the hook and get on with business.

The problem is, we just can’t leave it at that. Americans have this thing about adoration. We insist upon making stars part of the family. We want them to speak to us directly and, by all means, have something important to say. Elevating celebrities to such heights, we leave them giddy and inclined to boldness. Next thing you know, they say stupid things and we act betrayed. Maybe Michael Jackson has learned a lesson. His audience? Probably not.

Listening to the wrong voices has become

a national pastime. Otherwise we would not have cared what Michael thinks about Jews, blacks, whites or anything else. Nor would we pay heed to Barbra Streisand on politics or Charles Barkley on the subject of role models. Jane Fonda’s only sin during the Vietnam War was sounding like a schoolgirl when she inveighed against the war. Sure, celebrities occasionally are politically astute. Most of the time they are just celebrities.

Michael Jackson? Since being a child star, Jackson has devoted himself to the accumulation of great wealth. He lives in a mansion removed from the world. He may be a nice man, or he may not. But a student of the forces that have shaped the 20th century? A sage who can solve the racial riddles of America? A person deeply in touch with his own time? Come on.

Such people are available, of course. The poet Maya Angelou, say, or the novelist John Updike, or the educator and priest Theodore Hesburgh of Notre Dame University, or the violinist Itzhak Perlman, or the painter Jacob Lawrence, who chronicled the movement of black Americans from south to north in the 1940s. There was a comedian by the name of Lenny Bruce who made a significant contribution, albeit in impolite fashion. In one of his most provocative bits, Bruce, now deceased, repeated the word “nigger” over and over. By the time he finished, Bruce had disarmed that hideous term, atomized it, left it dead and deflated, useless. If someone had ordered Lenny Bruce to recant, he would have told them to get lost—or worse.

Substance is missing from public discourse these days, that is the problem. Around the same time as the Jackson flap, another well-publicized episode occurred in the upscale suburban town of Greenwich, Conn. Five high-school seniors were banned from graduation because they wrote an encrypted message in the yearbook that said: “Kill all niggers.” The prank plunged the community into a spasm of self-examination. How could something so uncouth happen in a decent place like Greenwich? Where did things go wrong? Let’s take a guess. Decent places like Greenwich get in trouble the way all of America does—by mistaking success for substance and allowing nonsense to masquerade as truth. The triumph of trivia is nigh upon us.

So what is gained by sending Michael Jackson back to the studio or reprinting the Greenwich yearbook—which in fact is what the school has done? Enlightenment rarely comes so easily. Maybe Jackson intended to make a useful statement with his song but lacked the sophistication. Remember, this is a guy who once started a fuss by energetically grabbing his crotch in a music video. The Greenwich seniors? Let’s say they were playing for cheap laughs in a mostly white community and got snagged by their own absurdity. The kids could use counselling and a summer without movies or television—and, like Michael Jackson, a lengthy introduction to the work of Lenny Bruce.

Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.