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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 30, July 11, 2009

Spectacular Music, Spectacular Wreck

Saturday 11 July 2009, by T J S George

Death, we know, is a great leveller. What we do not realise is that it is also a great revealer. It strips off the many masks we wear in life and reveals the many truths we hope to hide. How glittering were the masks Michael Jackson sported! And how ugly the truths behind them!

The fans of course are uninterested in the ugliness. They remain dazzled by the magic of the Pop Emperor’s music. It was indeed superior music. It may have lacked the intellectual vigour of the Beatles, but it resounded with a throbbing, palpitating rhythm of electrical energy. It was thunderclap set to foot-thumping tempo. It was spectacular. It was music to watch.

Music to watch? Time was when the best way to enjoy music was to close one’s eyes and lose oneself in the uplifting pleasure of listening. Music was a function of sound. But the 1950s and 1960s changed all that. While the Hippy culture was content with turning the abnormal into normal, Pop emerged as a conscious effort to tap the commercial potential of music. It envisaged the modern mass audiences as frenzied consumers. Elvis Presley marketed himself with bejewelled high-collar jackets and a provocative movement of the hips that earned him the title Elvis the Pelvis.

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It was left to Michael Jackson to realise the full potential of the pelvis. Like a man inspired, he sent his hips into an erectile orbit that taunted an astonished world. His swirls and gyrations, his jigs and shrugs, his defiant gestures became his music. His “Thriller” thrilled millions of buyers. His “Bad” was adjudged good by millions more.

Even in showmanship, Jackson out-performed Presley. Presenting a trans-sexual image, he decked himself up in gaudy tunics with kinglike epaulets and sequinned gloves. Small wonder that he made the music video an art form in itself, establishing once and for all that music was meant as much for the cameras as for the recording microphones. Clearly Jackson was a virtuoso. Whether he was a genius is open to question, but he certainly was a prodigy. He was a celebrity from the age of 11.

Was that his undoing? To cope with Big Fame and Big Money, you need a Big Mind. Which does not come easily. Education can sometimes help. So can family background. The company one keeps can matter too. And the way one spends one’s spare time. Which of these would be accessible to a Black family with nine children growing up in the American inner state of Indiana? Chances get even dimmer when one becomes rich and famous too early in life. Unable to grasp the opportunities provided by celebrity status, unable to absorb the pressures as well as the pleasures of superstardom, unable simply to cope, Jackson withdrew into himself. He became not just a recluse, but a dangerously eccentric recluse.

Marriages and divorces, children from hired wombs, plastic surgeries one after another, chemical treatments to make his black skin white, sleeping in coffins, dangling a baby from the balcony – the man was a psychological wreck. And the drugs. They’ve calculated that he was taking drugs worth 24 lakh rupees every month. There was no food intake. What the post-mortem revealed was a skeleton sustained by narcotics. And an accumulated debt of nearly 3000 crore rupees.

What is the use of fame? What is life worth if it gives you the whole world, but not one day’s peace of mind? The biggest truth revealed by Michael Jackson’s death is a truth all of us know but few of us accept: Money cannot buy happiness.

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