Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Michael Jackson: American Beauty; His Fantasies and Desperate Quest for Physical Transformation Are a Logical Extension of the Dream Shared by Millions of Americans, Argues Joan Smith

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Michael Jackson: American Beauty; His Fantasies and Desperate Quest for Physical Transformation Are a Logical Extension of the Dream Shared by Millions of Americans, Argues Joan Smith

Article excerpt

The Michael Jackson trial has been a paradigmatic moment in American cultural history, not so much because of the specific criminal allegations, but because of the insights it has offered into the inner life of one of its foremost icons. Dressed in a black suit, his chalk-white face sheltering under a black umbrella, Jackson has cut a spectral figure, rushing to hospital more than once for emergency treatment; opening the summing-up on 1 June, the judge warned the jury against being swayed by pity for the singer. Yet it may be that the singer's entourage and fans who turned up at the courthouse daily, cheering the defence team and booing prosecutors, grasped an essential truth about Jackson: that, for all his weirdness, his fantasies and his perpetual quest for transformation have deep roots in the American psyche.


Each day Jackson arrived at court after a 45-minute drive from Neverland, his 2,600-acre ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley where the abuse was alleged to have happened. Neverland is a rich man's playground where the so-called King of Pop--Jackson's monarchical fantasies are evident in the names he gave his first and third children, Prince Michael Joseph Jr and Prince Michael II--operated to his own rules, which included sharing his bedroom with boys. Jackson had become so isolated from the world and its norms that he admitted as much in Martin Bashir's 2003 documentary, failing to realise it was a dangerous revelation for a man around whom rumours of child abuse had swirled for the previous ten years.

One of the problems for the prosecution was that it became clear during the trial that Jackson's weird, self-indulgent lifestyle attracted people as disturbed as himself, either as employees or fans (like the Arvizo family) who wanted to be close to him. Some prosecution witnesses contradicted themselves, gave rambling testimonies or were accused by defence lawyers of trying to extort money from Jackson. In essence, the jury had to decide whether the singer was a victim of con artists, or a predatory paedophile who equipped Neverland with features to attract boys whom he then groomed for sex. Were the funfair and Jackson's exotic pets a lure, or merely evidence of his stunted emotional development, a consequence of being sent out to work as the youngest member of the Jackson Five when he was only 11?

It would not be surprising if Jackson, required to perform adult emotions while still a child, had become confused about who he was. The "adultification" of children is not a new phenomenon in American culture, and especially not in Hollywood, which took over the practice of using child performers from the stage, turning some of them--Shirley Temple, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, for instance--into movie stars with world wide followings. In recent years, the notion of turning children into replica adults has become big business, with stage-struck parents entering ever younger children in beauty contests, producing disturbingly sexualised images. Nine years ago, the murder of a six-year-old girl, JonBenet Ramsey, put the practice under the spotlight. Commentators were shocked by the brutal killing--the child was bludgeoned to death in the basement of her parents' home--and the way she had been turned, according to one report at the time, into "a painted baby, a sexualised toddler beauty queen".

Jackson is said to have a horror of the ageing process, which hardly sets him apart in the modern world, but he also seems to cling to a childlike fantasy that both race and gender are infinitely mutable. The history of his attempts to remodel himself is both gruesome and compelling, allegedly starting 21 years ago with a nose job (rhinoplasty), historically the operation of choice for non-whites who want to look more Caucasian. Many other "procedures" followed, some to correct earlier mistakes, but all tending towards obscuring Jackson's racial origin. At the same time his complexion, chocolate brown in photographs taken when he was a child star, has become deathly pale, a circumstance Jackson blames on a medical condition called vitiligo. …

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