Michael Jackson was popular music’s “last superstar.” So dormant is this period of cultural history that, indeed, “it’s hard even to talk in 2009 about what the era of the superstar was like,” noted former MTV News correspondent John Norris in conversation with CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
This, we’re told, is a state of affairs we’re supposed to lament.
Proof of the ravages of Internet-driven segmentation and piracy, major label-types say, is the lack of new icons around whom our culture can coalesce; music may be more profuse and recklessly available than ever — but, precisely for that reason, it will never again reach a “Thriller”-like critical mass.
I couldn’t agree more.
Nor could I be happier.
Reflect for a moment on this pining for masscult idols: For whom was it good? Major record labels and Viacom-owned MTV? Unquestionably.
Music fans, not to mention superstars themselves? Not so much.
Elvis Presley degenerated into a bloated parody. John Lennon was murdered (and George Harrison, not incidentally, was very nearly so). Prince grew so embittered with major-label meddling that he temporarily forswore recording under his own proper (if truncated) name.
And we’re all intimately familiar with the twisted saga of Mr. Jackson’s post-“Thriller” personal life, equal parts Sun King and Peter Pan.
The thread that connects the superstar experience is the desire to retreat. Fame at such a colossal scale is multifariously intrusive - the prurient gossip press, the professional hangers-on and cutthroats, the millions of fans whose adulation is often a projection of their own needs rather than real affection. (How could it be otherwise?)
In a 1984 Rolling Stone interview with Kurt Loder, Bruce Springsteen - who, flush with the massive success of “Born in the U.S.A.,” knew from superstardom - said presciently: “The type of fame that Elvis had, and that I think Michael Jackson has, the pressure of it, and the isolation that it seems to require, has gotta be really painful. I wasn’t gonna let that happen to me….
“The biggest gift that your fans can give you is just treating you like a human being, because anything else dehumanizes you,” Mr. Springsteen concluded.
After “Born in the U.S.A.,” Mr. Springsteen beat his own gradual retreat, eventually disbanding the E Street Band and, worse, spending much of the 1990s on the creative sidelines.
Indeed, the narcotic effect of superstardom isn’t limited to the arena of public adoration; it inevitably diminishes the work itself.
Mr. Jackson sought to match the Olympian success of “Thriller” with each subsequent outing. Yet from 1987’s “Bad” through to 2001’s “Invincible,” he lost all sense of an ordinary productive ethic. The albums, few and far between, became increasingly bombastic and decreasingly compelling. (In fairness, legal troubles no doubt contributed to the long layoffs.) It was a predictable outcome. The linchpin of global superstardom is an inhuman bargain that requires an artist to contort his work to suit so many millions, if not billions, of ears. Also, as brilliant a style syncretist as Mr. Jackson was, he could not please everyone — or stay ahead of shifting trends - forever.
Superstardom, for fans, is equally numbing.
In his blockbuster essay on mass culture, Dwight Macdonald, the leftist midcentury social critic, was right about one thing: Art that is produced without thought of personal connection is a ruthless insult to the consumer. “Mass culture is imposed from above,” he wrote. “It is fabricated by technicians hired by businessmen; its audience are passive consumers, their participation limited to buying and not buying.” What a difference an Internet makes.
The masscult business model that made Michael Jackson, superstar, possible is gone, of course, and in its place is an unstable constellation of fiercely partisan, often narcissistic subcultures (and sub-subcultures).
It is, however, anything but passive. It allows room for admiration, even veneration, of artists - but it does not require worship. Conveniently for fans, the option of not buying does not in any way preclude participation.
Toxicology aside, surely one of the aggravating factors of Mr. Jackson’s premature death was the self-imposed grind of trying to mount — in anachronistic superstar fashion — a triumphant return on the back of a 50-show residency at London’s O2 Arena.
Would he have suffered a heart attack had he begun a tentative, quiet comeback, playing small theaters and gradually working his way into arenas? We’ll never know, and anyway, such was not the man’s style.
Mr. Jackson lived by the sword of masscult and died by it, too.
I hope he’s resting in peace.
But I’m glad the cults of superstardom that he inspired will be buried along with him.