Schizoid Man: Michael Jackson and the Death of Superstardom in the 21st Century

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After watching both parts of the haunting HBO documentary Leaving Neverland three months ago, I didn’t quite know what to say. Sitting beside my girlfriend, a hardcore Michael Jackson fan since childhood, I knew I would be treading on terribly thin ice if my verdict of the film wasn’t quite nuanced enough. But soon after finishing the four hour voyage into the furthest depths of his Neverland Ranch, it dawned upon the both of us very lucidly: something about Michael Jackson died today.

Now of course “MJ” has been dead for almost exactly ten years now, but it’s not his physical parting that’s important here. While sexual abuse allegations have been floating around for the past two decades, the documentary is the first time that the topic has come to the media forefront with such violent force again since the King of Pop’s untimely death in 2009. 

Leaving Neverland is a new milestone (or perhaps rather a low blow) in the legal saga surrounding the pop star. The fact that two of the formerly most fervent defenders of Michael have now turned their backs on him, long after there would be anything to gain from him anymore, carries particular weight. Now of course the film is heavily one-sided, and a gripping narrative will never be a legitimate substitute for actual conclusive evidence – in fact, the film has received strong backlash from Jackson supporters, including a thirty minute counter-documentary published on YouTube by the Jackson Estate titled Neverland Firsthand – but there’s something else to it.

I won’t attempt to argue for one side or another here. Instead, I am going to argue for something very different: the thesis that Leaving Neverland, regardless of its actual merit or lack thereof, will profoundly impact the way in which we view our cultural icons.

Although Michael will never be guilty in the eyes of his most fervent fans, in the past three months a big enough portion of the public (including  celebrities such as Oprah and Weird Al Yankovic) has switched sides to permanently tarnish the legacy of one of the most successful solo artists of all time. And while the scandal might not diminish the quality of his music, it would be reductionist to say that Michael Jackson merely was a musician – he was an entertainer without equal in his generation. Nobody else in the late 70s to mid-90s managed to combine singing, dancing, performing, and public appearances into such a spectacle that millions of fans from virtually anywhere in the world would pay a month’s salary to watch a man perform on stage who stopped singing live by the time he was 40.

The only contemporary act that comes even remotely close in terms of musical entertainment spectacle is that of Korean boy bands such as BTS or EXO. However, there are two fundamental differences between them and Michael which render the comparison futile. Firstly, ever since parting with his four Jackson Five siblings, Michael has been a solo performer, while K-pop groups feature at least four individual stars in a kind of ensemble cast. Secondly, Michael captured almost every demographic group on every continent, ranging from five-year old kids to pop-savvy seniors. K-pop on the other hand is particularly pronounced among female teens and young adults in East Asia, Western Europe, and North America, while the rest of the world is fairly unfazed by the phenomenon, probably also in part due to the limited spread of the Korean language.

As such, one can conclude that while there might be quite a few stars out there today, Lady Gaga, Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift, and recently Ariana Grande probably being among the biggest right now, Michael Jackson was the last real superstar – a larger-than-life figure who served as the identification symbol of an entire generation – and now he has fallen beyond saving in the eyes of many. But rather than this being a singular event, the downfall of MJ has larger implications for pop culture as a whole: the idea of superstardom and of cultural icons is no longer tenable. There won’t be another Michael Jackson or Elvis Presley.

My reasoning for this bold claim will focus on a technology which has catapulted the concept of stardom into an entirely new realm: the Internet and social media. Because of the lightning speed at which information and news (whether fake or real) spread nowadays, it has become impossible for celebrities to sneak away with their faux pas and mistakes scot-free. While Elvis was known to be a serial drug abuser towards the end of his life, people weren’t all too concerned with his shortfalls, as it wasn’t possible to simply re-watch and re-read each and every of his missteps within seconds. He also never got caught up in allegations that were even close to the gravity that pedophilia entails.

In his early days, things looked good for Michael as well, but as the Internet emerged, it became easier and easier to spot flaws in what he does and how he does it. Once again, the idea is not that Michael is definitely guilty of the accusations, but that their existence and their almost instantaneous spread has become a counterpoint to anyone with similar superstar ambitions. 

Essentially, the death of the superstar depended on two factors, which the Jackson case brightly illustrates: memory and awareness.

Memory never served us all too well. We certainly forget more than we remember, and what we do remember, we usually remember wrongly, tinted by some happy experience or saddening encounter, and forever leaving its subjective mark on an otherwise objective occurrence. And it used to be totally okay to forget: there was no giant and directly accessible archive storing all kinds of things about people, documenting their escapades for decades to come. But this changed very quickly in the 90s.

The Internet, regardless of all the controversy that surrounds it, does one thing, and it does it very well: it serves as a kind of collective memory. Most things that get uploaded online and achieve some popularity will be backed up and become accessible for decades to come, long after the original source was taken down. Suddenly, every presidential statement can be fact-checked in real time, every embarrassing stage accident and lip-sync disaster is immortalized for the ages, and every celebrity accusation is neatly tucked away, only waiting to be re-discovered. Simply buying the silence of a few newspapers and TV channels won’t be enough anymore, as every Twitter user could become a possible informant to the world.

Secondly, from that memory also flows awareness. At the very latest since #MeToo, we keep track of who has messed up big time, and we don’t just let it go unnoticed anymore. Many victims have felt empowered enough to speak out against their perpetrators, even if said perpetrators might sit behind rows and rows of impeccable lawyers, and more and more celebrities, ranging from Kevin Spacey to R. Kelly, have found themselves exposed for their crimes. We have generally started to side with the accuser, the alleged victim, rather than the accused, the alleged perpetrator. And while this shift from in dubio pro to in dubio contra reo is certainly another interesting phenomenon worth discussing, it is the underlying mentality shift rather than the possible legal one that is truly important here.

We are not willing to let black sheep scrape by unscathed anymore. The cries for social justice have become louder than ever before. What that means is that building yourself a throne that will endure and not be torn down by scandals and allegations has become harder than ever. In order to succeed, one must either have an incredibly tough skin or be an actual saint – and ideally both. While certainly not ticking the second box, for a while Kanye West was probably the closest to pursuing that path: his albums became huge critical and commercial successes, his persona was flamboyant, and he quickly rose up as one of the figureheads of hip hop music. But, among other things, his comments about slavery and his violent outbursts – now for everyone to see – have squarely prevented his ascension.

Another possible contender seems to be much less anachronistic given her characteristics: she is a social activist, a beacon of female empowerment, a talented musician and performer, and of course a frontrunner in public opinion: Beyoncé really seems to have what it takes. The issue with Beyoncé, surprisingly enough, is her popularity. While she sold a whopping 63 million records in the U.S. alone, this amount is dwarfed by the likes of Michael with 145 million or Elvis with 200 million. Much more problematic however, her superstardom doesn’t quite transcend the English-speaking world as much: the U.S. and UK account for about 80 of her 92 million record sales, and Australia and Canada together claim almost another 5 million of that chunk. Unlike BTS (or MJ and his glamorous gibberish), Beyoncé’s music largely feeds off its lyrics – a hindrance rather than a plus when it comes to establishing oneself in the multilingual “rest of the world”.

Instead of singular cultural icons, our current era is defined by a plurality of bigger and smaller stars. With a Lady Gaga here, an Ariana Grande there, and a Beyoncé in yet another corner, every music enthusiast can now find their own fandom to turn to.

Finally, the issue of privacy remains. While Elvis had Graceland and Michael had Neverland which they could retreat to in order to have some shielding from frenetic fans and restless paparazzi, the private sphere of celebrities has shrunk further and further as time went on. The need for stars to utilize social media in order to stay on top of the wave gives us insights into the private lives of the rich and famous that weren’t even fathomable a decade back. When Kevin Hart was booted from hosting the 2019 Oscars after homophobic tweets of his from 2011 resurfaced, he didn’t turn to live TV to address the issue – instead, he issued a statement on his Instagram. While the ease of transmission is certainly a big part of this shift towards addressing one’s audience via social media, the much more important factor is the immediacy of it all. His words were unmediated and undiluted – whoever wanted to know what he has to say didn’t need to tune in to news channel coverage, but they could just watch Hart’s video on the platform. It makes communication easier, but it also takes away from the layered mystery that superstars used to shroud themselves in. Some, like Frank Ocean, have long maintained said mystery by pre-empting social network participation, but eventually, most (including him) succumbed as well in order to maximize their outreach. No mystery, no superstar.

Bringing it back together, what is the bottom line of it all? The advent of the Internet and eventually social media fundamentally changed the way that we interact with the celebrity sphere. Instead of distant admiration through magazines and on TV, their presence has now become more persistent than ever if we so desire. Instead of them carefully choosing how to expose themselves to the world, they now have to pay attention not to become exposed by the media wherever they tread. As a consequence, we do not crowd around a single superstar hegemon anymore, but instead we have a plethora of stars who manage to stay afloat. Think of it as geopolitics: instead of the U.S. as the sole uncontested superpower (befittingly corresponding to MJ), we (will) have China and perhaps even the EU vying for a similar status – only that the celebrity world is a few steps ahead of geopolitics here. What Taylor, Beyoncé, Ariana, and Ed are today, the EU and China might be tomorrow. As so often, the key to understanding our current times, whether socially, culturally, or politically, is diversity rather than unity.

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