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The ‘iconic’ Michael Jackson

26 June, 2009

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There’ll be countless articles, comments and blog statements about the news of Michael Jackson’s death last evening.  And there probably should be: Jackson, whatever one thinks about both his music and his life-style, was a dominant figure over the past (and let’s not forget how young he was when he shot to fame with his brothers, The Jackson 5) four decades.

There is already one expression used about Michael Jackson, it is icon.  Look up the meanings of the word icon or iconic and you find that it probably does describe him.  Admittedly, Jackson was not an icon in the normal, Christian or religious sense — like icons used in various Orthodox traditions.  At the same time, using some of the other definitions available, Jackson did iconically “represent a symbol as in semiotics” or a “graphic image used in computer language to convey values or representation”.

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He came to symbolise (and not one dimensionally) in the late 60s and early 70s a type of celebrity.  To be sure child stars and child celebrities earlier caught people’s imaginations (Shirley Temple or Judy Garland come to mind).  But Michael, in particular among his brothers, became a celebrity both talented and young. And this dynamic tension between talent and child was never reconciled but, by both his father and Motown, encouraged and manipulated.

Jackson symbolised black funk and rock ‘n roll blending with white mainstream pop music and culture.  Again, we simply have to think of the time in history: post Civil rights and post Martin Luther King.  If Diana Ross and the Supremes were one of many Motown proto-types they were still, more or less, blacks looking, acting and performing sort of like white women.  Jackson wasn’t like white boys — despite the futile imitations of Donny Osmond and David Cassidy trying to be like him.

Jackson was an icon of postmodern cliche.  It wasn’t Madonna it was Michael Jackson who came to represent the ‘fluid and changeable’ self-identity of the postmodern self.  As his appearances changed over the years we wondered: is he white or is he black, is he male or is he female, is he well or is he ill.  But these questions were questions somewhat indicative of what was within (and still is within) some of the ways society seeks to find definition: playfully, paradoxically and incompletely.

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Jackson’s monumental 1982 album Thriller with both the eponymous hit and “Billie Jean” was one of the first music productions to use movie/video to promote the album and to be at the centre of the album’s work.  This album did what the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) album did: gave both unified structure and visual impact to an album.

Jackson was iconic as well in his brokenness and confusion.  This sounds trite of me to suggest but I’m not entirely sure how else to express it.  Over the next days, months and years lots of things will be written about Jackson’s childhood (if it can be rightly called that) and his relationship with his, reportedly, dysfunctional father.  I cannot comment.  But whatever the source and cause of Jackson’s own dysfunction — symbolised by his marriage and divorce with Elvis’ daughter, Lisa-Marie — his brokenness and confusion cannot be entirely his own doing.  Society contributed in no small way.

We don’t like thinking that we contribute to celebrities’ problems because either we reject our culpability in preference for individual responsibility or we chose to deny that those whom we idolise we tend to create in our own image.

You see, I suspect  our icons very often not only portray ideals we esteem but also are our values, aspirations and longing we unknowingly fashion into the metrics we use to esteem our idols and celebrities.  To put it simply: Michael Jackson is an icon not only of what many, many people valued (worshiped?) but he became what many, many people wanted.  It was a case of mutual use and abuse.

He was hugely talented musician (OK, I admit it: I didn’t really like his music), a phenomenal performer (come on: we all secretly wished we could have danced like him in his “Billie Jean” video even if we well knew we’d seriously hurt ourselves if we tried) and master video producer.  Whatever the cause of his death (and rumours abound already) in his life Michael Jackson was iconic — then again, I wonder if even his death is iconic.

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