There’s something central about celebrities that defines American culture at its core. Americans love talent. Americans love youth and beauty. And we love them best when they come together in the same person. Celebrities are successful, which means they’re also very rich. After that, we really don’t need any other reason to admire them, read about them and obsess over them.
Britney Spears insists with a straight face that she’s not selling herself through sex, yet presses her breasts to the wall for Rolling Stone and kisses Madonna to fuel the fantasies of teenage boys. When Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones sued a magazine for $835,000 in damages after it published their wedding photos, taken without authorization, Zeta-Jones testified that “it is a lot of money maybe to a lot of people in this [court] room, but it is not that much for us.” Now there’s a way to win the hearts of commoners.
With law enforcement officials poking around Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch after allegations of sexual abuse by a 12 year old, we get more evidence that celebrity culture does little for society. Who’s surprised if it does certain celebrities an even worse turn?
There’s no doubt that Jackson is a strange, even deeply disturbed, man. He’s also fascinating—a prime example of the symbiotic relationship between celebrities and the public. Symbiotic, except for the fact that Jackson himself has gotten little or nothing out of it. (We’re not counting money, here.) The public meanwhile, has reaped a windfall. This isn’t the first time allegations of child molestation have surfaced around Jackson. It’s a 10-year-old blight hanging over his head.
Whatever we say about the notion of individual responsibility, consider the man’s background: he’s alleged that his parents abused him, talks incessantly about never having had a childhood, professes deep religious faith as a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and “sleeps” with children—whatever that is supposed to mean. That last item is shocking enough considering he knows all too well the shame that children feel when exploited by adults. But, above all, we forget that this man who acts like a boy has never known anything except the life of a celebrity.
A cynic might say that the triple-threat of alleged abuse, religion and fame is bound to warp even the strongest among us. But maybe it’s finally time to admit that, if fame warps the famous, it also warps us—into a narcissistic mirror where nothing of real importance takes place, where nothing really matters. It’s a setup that has reduced us to telling jokes about how weird the man is, rather than how tragic these allegations might well turn out to be.
Michael Jackson? He’s the chalk-faced man who comes out of his shell just to chirp once in a while and remind us that he got where he is thanks to the public, whether curious, adoring or revolted.