“History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce,” a puckish German wit once quipped. But were Karl Marx alive today, he would doubtless find both tragedy and comedy in the pedophile scandals of that most egregious piece of late-20th-century detritus, Michael Jackson. War in Iraq, turmoil in Turkey, continued unrest in Israel, mass demonstrations against George W. Bush in London — and in the U.S. every news camera was focused on a celebrity freak. Was it only 10 years ago that the singer-songwriter-skin-lightener-enthusiast was being investigated by the Santa Barbara District Attorney’s Office for molesting a preteen boy? Now here we are once more with the same D.A. charging an older but obviously none-the-wiser Michael Jackson for allegedly molesting another preteen boy. And now here I am as well, contemplating the self-proclaimed “King of Pop,” his mass-media crown ever askew. So, is it déjà vu all over again? Not quite.
Michael Jackson ’93 wasn’t handcuffed and perp-walked like Michael Jackson ’03. And the deference shown by the mainstream media to a musical superstar has given way to bemused indifference with a performer given to releasing “great hits” collections as new product while selling off his allegedly private life as a series of contrived documentary specials. In fact, the only new song on Number Ones — the album released on the day of Jackson’s new scandal tsunami — is “One More Chance,” a ditty co-written with R. Kelly, another star under investigation for child molestation, albeit with girls. But outside of that, as Edie Beale was wont to say, “Sometimes it’s very difficult to separate the past from the present.”
In 1993, I was writing for the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine, where we thought we had a full-scale “think”-style profile on our hands — what with Jackson’s show-business past and sex-criminal present to put into perspective. So, to that end I canvassed everyone from screenwriters, producers, plastic surgeons and PR personnel, to testy African-American minister Reverend William Epps (“This is a wake-up call to Michael Jackson, to let him know who he is”), Jackson hagio-biographer J. Randy Taraborelli (“I’d just as soon not have Michael reveal that his girlfriend is Brooke Shields because obviously she’s not. That says more about him than if he would have said, ‘I don’t have a girlfriend’”), famed L.A. muralist Kent Twitchell (who Jackson — via a front organization — was planning to pay to paint the performer’s likeness on the side of the El Capitan theater in Hollywood), and best of all, intrepid telejournalist Diane Dimond (then with Hard Copy, now with Court TV).
“Tom Sneddon, the D.A. in Santa Barbara, is a no-holds-barred graduate of Notre Dame. He’s not a politician,” Dimond told me back in ’93. “He’s a trial lawyer. And he doesn’t do anything for show. I think the case is going to stay open for the remainder of the six-year statute of limitations. All my police sources and investigative sources are telling me, ‘We might not be able to get him because the kid won’t testify — no victim, no crime. But we’re going to leave the case open and watch him like a hawk.’”
And indeed they did — well past the statute of limitations, moving in for a hawklike “kill” thanks to the fact that this time out, the victim hasn’t launched a civil suit like his predecessor, the now 23-year-old Jordie Chandler. Moreover, since that time, the law has changed, making it possible for the authorities to proceed with this new case as they hadn’t with the old one. No civil settlement can now get in the D.A.’s way. It was because of this settlement that my original article was eventually scotched — there being no further story to write. But as the great Mae West said, “Keep a diary, and one day it’ll keep you.” Likewise a reporter’s notes — which could well have been written yesterday rather than a decade ago.
“Michael likes photo books that document suffering,” says Todd Gray, a young African-American who worked as Jackson’s personal photographer (“I was his instant pocket camera”) from 1979 to 1983. “Remember those photos Louis Hine took of kids in sweatshops at the turn of the [20th] century? Michael liked the look of those photos and preferred to be shot like them — looking melancholy and a little distant.” And so, in a culture where appearance is all, Jackson’s aura of fragility — likened by Steven Spielberg to “a fawn in a burning forest” — was not only manufactured as a visual trademark but eagerly disseminated by an unfailingly credulous press as a key personality trait.
Gray, who was thrown out of the Jackson inner circle when he submitted photos of Jackson to Newsweek without the singer’s express approval, observed power plays firsthand. “He freezes people out. He’ll play people off against each other at board meetings — knowing they all want to impress him. And he has a history of changing all the people around him every two albums or so — the accountant, the lawyer, everybody.”
The standard Afrocentric point of view interprets Michael Jackson as an example of racial self-hatred. Okay, that’s one view. But there’s another that links up with Michel Foucault’s notion that the power structure no longer has to police society because there are already “police” programmed by that society in the brain, which maintains a certain check on behavior. Who am I to criticize Michael Jackson’s surgeries as self-hating? That’s an essentialist point of view on race. I must respect him and allow him to make any decision he wants to make as to how he’s going to reconfigure his self or gender or what have you.
Those Hine photos will doubtless prove helpful to Jackson when he comes up for trial. “Melancholy and a little distant” is a perfect look for him on the stand. Foucault, however, is less helpful in such a setting — unless he wants to change his plea. As for power plays, they’ll be less in evidence. For while he’s on the lookout for “detectives,” presumably to supply the kind of muscle that the currently incarcerated Anthony Pellicano provided for him in the Jordie era, former “friends” are heading to the lifeboats, with the S.S. Michael Jackson taking on water faster than the Titanic. Producer Quincy Jones claimed his dealings with Jackson were “all about the music. I wasn’t involved in his personal life.” Liza Minnelli, whose soon-to-be-ex husband David Gest had Jackson serve as his best man at the couple’s lavish photo-op of a wedding last year, declined comment. And we’re not likely to hear much from such discarded Jackson playmates as Macaulay Culkin, Alfonso Ribeiro, Emmanuel Lewis and Corey Feldman. Like Jordie, they’re over the hill. And likely quite happy to be so.
“When a performer’s act for so long features random violence and strangled sexuality, how can that performer pose as a friend of a child?” asks humorist Harry Shearer, whose radio program Le Show has taken frequent swipes at Jackson’s pretensions. “Look at the ‘Smooth Criminal’ video, where he’s shown rescuing children from an evil drug lord against the background of a song about a woman being raped in her own apartment.
“The one thing that show-business people can do that public officials can’t quite do as well,” Shearer observes, “is dress themselves in the robes of humanitarianism. The difference is, Washington journalists, when they’re being lied to persistently enough, eventually smell a rat. In this town the more persistently and elaborately you lie to journalists, the more they buy it and the less curious they get.”
Needless to say, such sentiments would have to be amended in George W. Bush’s America — where being lied to is so common that rat en croûte has become the journalist’s spécialité de la maison, and a former bodybuilder famous for playing a robot in science-fiction films can be made governor of California.
“My first reaction to the whole thing with Michael was anger,” says comedian Paul Mooney, a onetime collaborator of comedian Richard Pryor’s and a veteran of the comedy circuit for decades, who has made frequent sport of the singer in his routine. “It seems they build up these black entertainers, and then they try to tear them down. But the thing is . . . I don’t know any black people like Michael Jackson.”
In February of 1993, when a Los Angeles Times reporter queried Mooney about his reaction to Jackson’s appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Special, the comic’s reaction was brusque: “It won’t have any bearing on his career. It’s over; everybody knows it. He’s like The Phantom of the Opera. It all seemed so insincere.” But in the wake of the child-molestation allegations, the police search of Jackson’s property and the revelation that the authorities had pictures taken of the singer’s private parts (the better to corroborate the testimony of his 13-year-old accuser), Mooney’s attitude has altered — somewhat.
“I just don’t understand why he let that happen. For a black man there’s always the threat hanging over your head of going to jail. That don’t scare me. I’ve known that since I was a kid. But they searched through his house like it was some nigger’s apartment in Harlem! Look, you find a 13-year-old naked and tied up in my living room, and I still wouldn’t let you take pictures of my dick and my ass!
“He’s real concerned about what you think of him,” Mooney notes evenly. “He called me up one time about my talking about his wanting to make himself look white on Arsenio. I told him that I don’t tell him what songs to sing, so please don’t tell me what jokes to tell. He asked me if there was anything he could ‘do’ for me.”
Mooney pauses, rolling the recollection over in his mind. “I told him the next time I did Arsenio, I would talk about him. But the next time, I didn’t, and he sent me some Cristal champagne.” Mooney pauses again, having suddenly decided that the incident was less inconsequential than he first thought. “You know,” he says hotly, “the first thing I asked him was how he got my number and my address — that really pissed me off!”
The comedian is plainly deep in thought now. “He’s just backed himself into a corner, I guess,” he says of Jackson softly. “And then there’s this fixing his nose and his face and all that. I think wide noses are beautiful. I think they’re sexy. I think they’re us.”
And any number of African-Americans would agree. However, a white philosopher takes a tack similar to that of black photographer Todd Gray:
“Michael Jackson,” Jean Baudrillard writes in The Transparency of Evil, “is a solitary mutant, a precursor of a hybridization that is perfect because it is universal — the race to end all races . . . Michael Jackson has had his face lifted, his hair straightened, his skin lightened — in short, he has been reconstructed with the greatest attention to detail. This is what makes him such an innocent and pure child — the artificial hermaphrodite of the fable, better even than Christ to reign over the world and reconcile its contradictions; better that a child-god because he is a child-prosthesis, and embryo of all those dreamt-of mutations that will deliver us from race and from sex.”
But what Michael Jackson’s life has actually shown is that there’s no deliverance from either. And while the spectacle he provides may be welcomed by the administration as a “Weapon of Mass Distraction” from its multifarious misdeeds, it shouldn’t be overlooked that, unlike Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden or George W. Bush, Michael Jackson is now under arrest.