Friday, June 26, 2009
The King is dead. Long Live the Queen.
Madonna and Michael Jackson were born about two weeks apart, in August 1958, and in effect grew up to be twins. The pair dominated pop music and pop culture for over twenty-years. They dated, in that arranged marriage manner superstars do, and briefly shared a manager in Freddy de Mann. Once Jackson had dubbed himself "the King of Pop" (an move entirely evocative of Napoleon crowning himself Emperor at Notre Dame )it was not long before Madonna was given her title as the Queen. To watch them perform you can see the two clearly in dialogue, look at Madonna's pointed reference to Jackson's signature crotch-grab in her Express Yourself video for a prime example.
Gender and sexuality are lightning points for both stars, in Jackson's out and out refusal to ever discuss the subject frankly (and the ensuing speculation), and diametrically, Madonna's endless reworkings of sexual politics. Just as Madonna is the butch, ballsy, masculine, muscular woman, Jackson was the effeminate, giggling, waif-like man, she is the dominant Mother, he the perpetual child, and both oddly asexual.
But, when does eccentricity become sinister? In Jackson's whimsical persona, tinged as it was by constant scandal and discussion of his sexualities, it becomes profoundly clear how close the parts of Peter Pan and Dracula are. Neverland becomes Castle Bran, Jackson could only refuse to play by the rules for so long before his chimp-loving showmanship becomes tainted with bestial hints, and his unconventional relationships with Peter and Wendy become decidedly dark (if only in the rumours and terrifying potentials).
The pair represent not only two decades of music, gossip, videos, concert tours, endless imitations and countless other cultural products, but also a particular way of being. They're the musical equivalent of Elizabeth Taylor (of course, Jackson's best friend) in that they were they last of their kind, and saw the culture they exemplified fracture around them. As Taylor came out of the golden age of cinema, coming of age as arguably the last great Hollywood star, Jackson and Madonna represent a time in music before albums were disregarded for playlists, when the media sought to make stars untouchable, before the invention of the ubiquitous and banal "down to Earth" pose of contemporary celebrities.
With the fragmentation and apparent democratisation of the media (itself a bluff), the collapse of the music industry as we have known it, and the increased cynicim of a technologically equipped public, who can now snap a celeb on a cell phone and have it seen around the world instantaneously, the mythology of celebrity has decayed. In short we have, like Jackson himself in The Wiz, seen the tricks behind the curtain. Only instead of shuddering in contempt and realising how foolish we've been to idolize so feverently, we've all decided, "Hey, I can do that!", we've all taken up arms and become pseudo-stars ourselves. Witness the British Home Secretary and the Singaporean Foreign Minister commenting on Jackson's death via twitter and facebook respectively to see the abandonment of professionalism for "cool", even in the highest positions of power, as celebrity itself (ie how well know a person is) has entirely overtaken what a person's actual function or relevance is.
Madonna of course remains the ultimate in celebrity, and with Jackson's demise she must feel ever more the pressures of extinction. She is quoted as saying; "I can't stop crying," over the news, and one wonders if she also weeps for herself. Having lost the only other person alive who knows what it is to be what she is, surely she feels a chill somewhere between das unheimlich and "there but for the grace of God". Seeing a megastar (what a strangely '90s turn of phrase that seems) equal only to herself expire, must be the boldest reassurance of mortality she's ever received - yes, stars really do die.
For all his surgical operations, which can be read as attempts to move himself beyond the confines of being human, Jackson is dead. And Madonna will not be sustained by macrobiotic diets and seven-hour gym workouts eternally. Both figures have made themselves seem superhuman, and that is the coldest cut, because they have duped us (ie we have duped ourselves via US Weekly) into believing we can beat death/God/life/nature/existence/decay, that sarcasm and self-tan will preserve us.
Perpetually burned into our consciousness via an MTV they defined, Madonna and Michael Jackson, like Hansel and Gretel, offer us a horrible (a)moral tale.