Tomorrow is Michael Jackson’s 50th birthday, a milestone that will likely be feted by many a newspaper in need of a holiday-weekend feature hole and a lot of morning-radio shows dredging up old jokes about plastic surgery and hyperbaric chambers. Thinking about Jackson hitting the big 5-0 has actually made me think about how the whole culture of celebrity has changed over the course of his fame. After all, he was probably the first example of a famous person who got really weird that a lot of people in our generation knew–he went from unstoppable pop supernova to the world’s most famous butt of a joke–and the tarnishment of his legacy over the past few years could be viewed as something of a harbinger for the TMZ-crazed “culture” we now exist in.
The “Leave Me Alone” video both acknowledged Jackson’s place in the culture at the time and winked at it, insouciance that was no doubt helped along by that not-so-long-ago era’s dominance by the mass media and the fact that back then, people looked at publications like the National Enquirer and Star in an askance way. (If the video were to be made today, it would be pulled apart by irony-deficient gossip bloggers and commenters yelling “FIRST!!11one.”) But it’s both interesting and disheartening to me how the cycle endured by Jackson, of him being the hottest thing on the planet then being turned on viciously by people who were ready and willing to believe the worst about him, has accelerated over the years, to the point where anyone even aspiring to the lowest rungs of “celebrity” almost needs to be outfitted with a neck brace in order to prepare themselves for the inevitable back/whiplash they’re going to endure. (Particularly if they’re female, or have feminine tendencies, because let’s face it: sexist norms are hard to break. Surely I wasn’t the only kid here who knew the grade-school rhyme with the line “Michael Jackson is a fag.”)
Anyway, here’s an American Bandstand performance by the Jackson 5, one that includes a song that exquisitely brings together joy and pain like few other songs ever have.
The interview between performances is somewhat heartbreaking, in hindsight.