When Our Heroes Fall
On Michael Jackson and narratives of condemnation
When someone we admire falls from grace, how do we react? How long can we hold onto a faith in their innocence, especially when the testimonies against them are so compelling?
Or do we think their talent has a moral counter-weight of its own?
“Nobody’s perfect” maybe the most euphemistic of all truisms. It can forgive a multitude of sins — if we want it to. A similar leniency resides in the idea of the ‘flawed genius’.
The allure of the flawed genius lies in the dialectic of pain and productivity. Inspiration born from suffering, and suffering the price paid for inspiration. The idea has managed to sustain, even assist, the reputations of creative figures down the ages, from Caravaggio to Vincent Van Gogh to Jackson Pollock, from Dylan Thomas to Kurt Cobain to Amy Winehouse.
Take the painter Van Gogh, for instance, whose struggles in life have taken on the hue of folklore, almost as if we can read from his story a paradigm of creativity itself. The sense of Van Gogh’s artistic heroism is more than ever tied to a personal tragedy, defined by his short life, his intense work rate during the last few years, and his mental illness that become evermore manifest as death grew closer.
In the case of Caravaggio, whose paintings are some of the most revered in all of art history, his erratic life met with knife-wielding brawls and unpaid debts, as well as the (likely) fact that he murdered a rival. Do we shun his art because of his moral inadequacy? Quite the opposite in fact: we find the ‘dark side if his genius’ a deeply fascinating and attractive place to explore.
I think its quite obvious to say that time helps in this rehabilitation. A 17th century Italian poses no threat to us from such a distance. Someone like Michael Jackson, however, is a facet of living memory whose alleged victims are still alive and bearing the scars. His reputation presses on our conscious minds all the more keenly. Not least my own.
I won’t be the first commentator to declare that Michael Jackson was a childhood hero. As an eleven-year-old, I practiced his dance moves and sang along to his melodies. I went frame-by-frame through his videos and tried to replicate each and every step as closely as I could. Somewhere in the muscle-memory of my legs and arms the steps still linger, rusting but not forgotten. It is no exaggeration to say that in the scintillating cadence of his voice and the impeccable glitz of his dancing, I had my first experience of aesthetic exultation.
And like many people — I imagine — the strange contortions that Jackson began to perpetrate on his own appearance became a source of disquiet for me. His singing voice remained more or less true, but for a performer whose brilliance was as much in his lithe physical demeanour, to see his face so aggressively altered left me feeling somehow betrayed.
Yet, as a committed fan, I accepted the changes he made to himself — along with all the other bizarre stories — as flaws that the broader narrative somehow made necessary: the Motown boy-genuis who lost his childhood, who led a life few of us can imagine, who was stalked by adulation through his teenage years and beyond. A flawed genius he certainly was. Likewise, the accusations that began to emerge in the 1990s — when Jackson was accused of sexually abusing 13-year-old Jordan ‘Jordy’ Chandler — were aberrations that the narrative seemed to explain, if not excuse. Such a strange life is bound to fracture, isn’t it?
In my mind at the time, these first accusations would inevitably dissolve to nothing. My own sense of allegiance remained focused on Jackson the artist. Only later, as my teenage years went by and my interest in his music began to wane, did I begin to seriously consider the possibility that he could be a child molester. The title ‘King of Pop’ made me shudder. What I’m getting at is an uncomfortable truth: that the more I grew away from Michael Jackson the entertainer, the easier it was for me to believe his accusers.
I have heard people say that they will no longer — can no longer — listen to Michael Jackson’s music. Certainly, he will be played less often on radio stations and playlists. Fewer of us will download his music. As for the careers of Jackson impersonators, they are sure to stumble.
Yet there are good arguments to say that we should separate the aesthetic value of an artist’s work from the moral worth of the artist. After all, can we not listen to a piece of music or look at a painting and distinguish between its merits and the life of the artist who made it?
Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is a novel that raises the act of child abuse to the level of a higher sensibility. Not only is it told from the perspective of a pedophile — and in doing so, privileges the his vantage point far above the child’s — but in giving the narrator such a flair for language, it positively revels in the abuser’s silver-tongued zeal.
If it were assumed that the sentiments expressed in Lolita were identical to those of the author, then the problematics of the book would make it almost impossible to read, let alone spend money on to purchase. Perhaps for some, it is impossible to read.
Either way, Nabokov was keen to claim the distinction between himself and his art:
It was my most difficult book — the book that treated of a theme which was so distant, so remote, from my own emotional life that it gave me a special pleasure to use my combinational talent to make it real.
In a certain sense, then, refusing to listen to Jackson’s music is a unsound position. Music has an existence beyond the life and deeds of the people who made it. To mis-quote Roland Barthes’ famous essay The Death of the Author, music is a space of many dimensions, in which are wedded and contested various kinds of inspiration.
In another sense, it is completely understandable, because Michael Jackson the man is more or less indistinguishable from Michael Jackson the musician. If we condemn the man, we must do so in a certain spirit of deliberate sacrifice towards the whole entity: the dance moves, the glove, the child star, the chimp, the multi-millionaire, the addict, the alien, the pioneer, the monster. The whole spectacle is deemed insufficient when weighed against our moral affront.
In this way, the special talents of an individual begin to lose their moral weight — which is to admit that, at one time, they did indeed make a difference.
After all, talent does matter. Probably it shouldn’t, but it does. There a B-list celebrities who have lost their whole careers to relatively minor indiscretions simply because their talent just wasn’t special enough to keep them on the scene. There are other celebrities, conversely, who we urge through redemption because we don’t want to loose them to a scandal. Talent, in this sense, is treated as a type of exception, a rare virtue that can be saved by a process of rehabilitation, one which may or may not include a confession, an apology, a humiliating police mugshot or an incredulously-expressed “I’m innocent” TV interview.
Whether or not talent has a moral counter-weight of its own depends on the narratives we tell. Story-telling makes a difference. If we are willing, we can construct a cause-and-effect story that exonerates almost any behavior; likewise, if we choose, we can construct a story which has deviancy built-in from the beginning.
Narrative is the method by which we make sense of the information as it comes to us; it is also the pathway which, as a judging public, we lead an individual towards or away from the gallows of moral condemnation. The case of Michael Jackson is exemplary in this regard because his life is so apt for narrative interpretation.
Michael Jackson can no longer speak for himself. His alleged victims are now having their say, and it is right that we listen to voices that, in the past, have been silenced by more powerful influences. For many, their stories are utterly compelling, and more importantly, believable.
I hope for everyone’s sake that the truth can finally be arrived at, but I suspect that in the full course of time a single film won’t be quite as decisive as it feels now. As the dust settles and the news headlines move on, fans of Jackson will be the ones to keep his flame alive or to blow it out. They will have to reckon with the same choices they’ve faced in the past: to maintain their allegiance or else drop it for a new story line.