Michael Jackson’s fall from grace is an allegory for the inherently corrupt nature of celebrity and fame
I have found myself struggling to write something about Leaving Neverland. Channel 4 provided an advance preview which proved to be four hours of unsettling weekend viewing. This is a dark and uncomfortable documentary about the peculiar world of fame. It’s not only painful but heartrending TV which will go a long way towards realigning our future relationship with iconoclastic popular culture totems, even if it doesn’t quite destroy the Michael Jackson brand.
When I wrote my book The Fame Formula, I posited a hypothesis regarding the exploitation of fame. PT Barnum captured the American public’s attention and curiosity by exploiting human oddities with his three ring circus and museum extravaganzas and Benjamin Franklin pointed out the paradox of fame in America: “We crave attention, yet hate it when others crave attention. Yet even though we may crave stardom, it’s difficult to mask the underlying truth to our being.”
The history of the business of show highlights countless stars whose value was more important to those leeching off the stardom than doing the corrective or right thing. There is a murky pact that binds stars to their public.
The American obsession with personality stretches back to Davy Crockett, pioneering frontiersman, Congressman and martyr at the Alamo. By the 1830s, his adventurer persona, thanks to massive marketing through stage plays, books and merchandising, had become a caricature of the real person. In the 21st century we are not questing after the price of celebrity. The concept of fame now comes with a strong inbuilt sense of its own diminishing returns.
Celebrities often only exist as a popular, easy means to project our own hopes and desires. Consider the conditions under which child stars were groomed, spoiled and simultaneously neglected with no allowance for the reality of life. Michael Jackson was the prime example. Pre-sexualized and pimped out for the stage, exposed to elder brothers rutting in hotel rooms and burlesque bump-and-grinders with hearts of gold or otherwise, his childhood was thieved early on. How could he have ever grasped the concept of normal? Folk around him should have taken greater care to help rather than exploit the commercial value of the brand. They failed to teach him normal, he failed to learn what was acceptable.
Escaping Neverland does not attempt to be balanced. It does not attempt to understand Jackson’s condition. The film depicts the abnormal conditions and the worst case scenario fame creates. Celebrities get so used to people looking at them that they stop looking back.
Michael Jackson suffered because of the toxic world in which he grew up. He developed ASN (Acquired Situational Narcissism) a form of narcissism that develops in late adolescence or early adulthood, which is brought on by wealth, fame and other trappings of celebrity. ASN differs from conventional narcissism in that it develops after childhood and is triggered and supported by the celebrity-obsessed society, by fans, assistants and a tabloid media all playing into the idea that the ASN sufferer really is vastly more important than other people. This triggers a narcissistic condition which might otherwise have been only a tendency, or even remained latent, and helps it to become a full-blown personality disorder.
Sooner or later we seek to destroy our heroes. Fame is a systematic cycle of celebration, consecration and sacrifice, in which cultures create gods and goddesses in order to kill them. And, much more than just another messiah-martyr tale, Jackson’s fall from grace is an allegory for the inherently corrupt nature of the American dream, a fallacy that begins with a father’s ambition and ends in Neverland Ranch isolation.
But public celebrity obsession is changing. In a post #Metoo, post Weinstein, post Saville age the likes of Jackson will never be built or shaped ever again. We have all seen that show too many times before. The audience understand the dark heart of toxic celebrity and only a few will still blindly worship these false icons. We have been exposed to the scars and the insolvency of values and as a result more questions will be asked of those behind the scenes.
There is knowledge now of a past system that enabled stars to behave appallingly. The audience now comprehends the systems that create celebrity power and its deification, and expect and demand more responsibility and morality from those we invest in. Jackson’s brand will dissolve and he will become a totem for a fallen era of corrupted power, money and fame – something few will ever contemplate in the decades ahead.This is the final reckoning of the irresistible Jackson legacy.