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Looking at the Man in the Mirror

Michael Jackson reflects our hopes and fears for the future

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12.01.2003 @08:34 AM
By Simon Smith

The "Thriller" video used to scare me out the room. With a Vincent Price voiceover, Michael Jackson the man turned into Michael Jackson the zombie, with dead eyes, a snarl and an army of zombie dancers. It was far too frightening for a kid raised in the suburbs.

Today, it's Jackson himself who's considered scary, as he has undergone what many consider a real-life transition from man to monster. And with the latest accusations of improprieties with a 12-year-old boy, the 45-year-old pop star is once again in the news, reviving fear and loathing of MJ.

This latest chapter in the story of society's fascination with Jackson (and, obviously, I'm not immune) begs the question: Why?

Certainly, Jackson is an intriguing character. He is, after all, an androgynous middle-aged musician with a penchant for plastic surgery, eccentric taste and possibly pedophilic tendencies. There is also the watching-a-train-wreck-in-slow-motion appeal, as we observe, many with genuine sadness, the man-child destroy himself in an apparent attempt to spurn societal expectations and pressures. It's easy to argue that in his self-destruction, Jackson is giving everyone the finger—from his allegedly abusive father to those who bought records supporting the elimination of the child superstar's childhood.

But there's more here than simple eccentricity and rebellion. Rather, Jackson has come to reflect society's hopes and fears for the future—our quest to be more than human and our fear of where this might lead, our desire to remain forever young and our fear that this will damage us psychologically, our fondness for youth and our fear that this might lead to pathological obsession, our desire for physical immortality and our fear of how we might achieve it. No longer the King of Pop, Jackson is now the king of contemporary angst. And we all live in his kingdom.

Our freak

We're all so familiar with Jackson's societal indiscretions that I'll spare you a timeline and merely highlight the biggest contributors to the stunningly immature media moniker "Wacko Jacko."

Let's go back to September 1986, when The National Enquirer published a photograph of Jackson using a hyperbaric oxygen chamber to extend his lifespan. Reportedly, the photo was part of Jackson's attempt to cultivate an image of eccentricity—think Bubbles the chimp—and, if so, the plan worked.

Eventually, however, around the same time that his music lost its market appeal and critical acclaim, Jackson lost control of his public image. In 1993 he was accused of child molestation and subsequently paid a multimillion dollar out-of-court settlement. He then married Lisa-Marie Presley, divorced her in 1996, remarried and had two children with his nurse Deborah Rowe, divorced her in 1999, gained custody of children Prince and Paris and had a third child nicknamed "Blanket" using artificial insemination and a surrogate mother. All the while, he was living at the 2,800-acre Neverland Ranch and amusement park.

This February, Martin Bashir's Living with Michael Jackson documentary further unraveled Jackson's public image. About 15 million British television viewers—more than half of the country's television audience—and more than 27 million Americans watched the first showing of the documentary.

Living with Michael Jackson revealed that the musician has sleepovers with young boys and that he denies having anything more than a little plastic surgery. In it, Jackson also expresses his desire for physical immortality. "I don't ever want to be buried," he says. "I would like to live forever."

It's easy to dismiss Jackson as a freak, but this misses the point: He is our freak. His indiscretions are qualitatively but not quantitatively different. People mock his expressed desire to live forever while embracing the latest news on stem cell therapy. They scoff at his pursuit of agelessness while slathering on wrinkle-reducing creams. They criticize his plastic surgery while injecting themselves with Botox. And they're moved to punitive justice over purported pedophilia while idolizing youth and drooling over Britney Spears.

Transhumanist icon

Jackson is, in short, a transhumanist icon. He embodies the hopes and fears placed in transhuman technologies. "People have started to move beyond their natural specifications, becoming more than human," observes Canadian transhumanist author Christopher Dewdney. Jackson, Dewdney notes, "is a kind of pioneer of the transhuman era. He has asked, Why not? Why can't I be who I want to be?"

Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in his body modification. Experts say that Jackson has had a browlift, a nose job, cheek implants, work on his lips and chin dimpling. "Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, has had so much cosmetic surgery that some people think of him as rather freakish," writes technology analyst Sonia Arrison in Tech Central Station. "But what is important to note is that most people do not object to the procedures themselves. What they dislike is his taste in those changes and that he refuses to admit the extent to which he's been under the knife. It's as though Jackson is a walking piece of art and everyone's a critic."

Everyone's a critic because body modification has become increasingly accessible and therefore increasingly a mainstream concern. Indeed, we're positively obsessed with body modification, if you think about such things as Botox parties and, as Arrison notes, television shows such as Nip and Tuck and Extreme Makeovers. With our growing ability to alter the body in new ways, through such things as nanotechnology and gene therapy, comes increasing concern about abuse. And so we watch the evolution of Jackson's face with keen interest. Jackson has become the warning for all those tempted by Cher and other plastic surgery poster people who maintain their beauty or become more beautiful with age.

Similarly, Jackson's other pursuits are reflective of the transhumanist times in which we live. "He is a gendered being that denies the sex of his organs and, seemingly, prefers an androgynous innocence to sexual difference," writes Are Flågan in the journal CTheory. "He is racially ambiguous after switching from black to white, although there is apparently an uneven skin tone underneath the makeup covering the condition. He effectively denies having altered his appearance and argumentatively returns crude surgical biotech to the time-honored changes of evolution, resisting the visible entropy of both processes. He strongly aspires to be a father, but denies romanticized reproduction its innate role in the formation of the nuclear family and disciplining of the body, preferring instead the copulation of the test tube and the marriage of the legally binding contract. He confuses the idol with the icon and religiously grants himself eternal life, augmenting the argument with a mutant look (a soul searching for a body) and a voice straining terribly with the low vocal chords."

So while Jackson rebels against the media and society that gave him his wealth and status, he has become an icon for a new era. He has traded one form of exploitation for another. No longer the disco kid with the big afro, no longer the one-gloved moonwalking pop superstar, he now embodies our age itself—our hopes that we can move from human to something more and our fears that we'll end up something less.

Copyright © 2003 Simon Smith

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