Monday, July 14, 2008

Parade of the Undead

Jackson Brown was my roommate in grad school, but I wasn't fully aware of exactly how big dude's brain was until I took a lit class with him and watched in awe as he ran the daggone thing himself. You'll find more of his brilliance below. --Misstra Knowitall
We disowned Michael Jackson too early.
For all his menacing aloofness.
For his unsavory fascination with minors.
And the nose, Mike. What was up with the nose?
In reality, we as a society are in the very state that I and almost every other pop-culturally-engrained child of the 80s was in during their adolescence: absolute worship of the legacy of Michael Jackson. Justin Timberlake has adopted his sound, Usher has picked up his dance moves, and we, ourselves, might not unnaturally whiten our skin, but we certainly do a number on our teeth.
Moreover, we find something eerily fascinating about the types of discomfiting cultural idiosyncrasies that Michael Jackson has come to embody for us. “Oh, that’s horrible,” we say, shuddering at the utter depravity of a Miley Cyrus pin-up or at the prospect of Heath Ledger’s death hauling in more money for the upcoming opening of The Dark Knight, all the while wondering silently just how many copies of the magazine will actually sell or just how big the box office take will actually be. MJ, it seems, was simply ahead of his time; had he invited thirteen-year-olds into his bedroom five years after the fact, perhaps we wouldn’t have sent him to trial, but would’ve thrown a camera into the room with them and caught everything on the latest episode of “Neverland Ranch.”
I know some of you, like me, grew up as the oldest child, bearing the brunt of the growing pains because you were leading the way for the younger siblings and didn’t have an example to follow. Taking into consideration that Michael Jackson is our collective big brother, so to speak, the progenitor who sacrificed to set cultural transformation into motion, did he really turn out all that bad?
OK, don’t answer that.
But Mike’s attempt (however short it falls) at a bright-eyed, elven-nosed visage mirrors pop-cultural conceptions of immortality,
which, by Mike’s own admission, is his ultimate aspiration (Isn’t it everyone’s?).
And this societal desire for eternal life is no less eerily fascinating than our sidelong gazes at Hannah Montana, even—perhaps especially—for Mike, whose desire for longevity is rooted in the most ostensibly hygienic of fantasy tales: Walt Disney’s Peter Pan.
Coaxing kids from their bedroom windows, giving them “angel du-,” I mean “pixie dust”—nothing objectionable about that. Mike’s attachment to the popular children’s tale is well publicized, as well as intense. In his 20/20 interview with Martin Bashir, Mike says it outright: "I am Peter Pan.”
So what’s the big difference between Peter Pan and, say, Arwen the Elf, Liv Tyler’s immortal character in Peter Jackson’s film version of Lord of the Rings? The undead factor. For all intents and purposes, Pan isn’t just a “Lost Boy,” he’s a boy who has been lost—to life, soaring to and from Earth with his angelic fairy friend to never age another day in his home amongst the clouds. Dress it up in green tights and throw a feather in its cap, and zombiehood doesn’t look half bad.
A corresponding preoccupation with the living dead is readily evident in MJ’s videos: As the man who doesn’t show up in photographs and evaporates between bed sheets in “Billie Jean”; as the mysterious entertainer that spins into a mound of dust at the end of “Remember the Time”; and the movie-length video Moonwalker is a veritable series of reincarnations, Mike transforming from one creature/machine/human to another. And of course, there’s “Thriller,” where even back in Mike’s coffee-complexioned days, we get to catch a glimpse of him with his current unsettling ashen pallor.

The “thrill” for us, the ostensibly astounded yet inwardly reveling audience, was to see how far the ride would go—just how pale his complexion could get, how cryptic and disturbing his lifestyle could become, and, ultimately, how undead Mike could be. And though we’ve washed our hands of with MJ now, our perverse curiosity certainly hasn’t been sated. The parade of the undead still marches on, far behind Michael Jackson’s lead, but still very much in tempo with his cadence.

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