The Postmortem Consumption of Michael Jackson

Posted by Andrew Sneddon on June 29, 2009 in Blog tagged with

The saturation press and television coverage of the sad death of Michael Jackson highlights the (unfortunate?) ubiquity of ‘theory’ in considerations of cultural events today. One cannot lift a newspaper, or spend some quality time with one’s television, without being force-fed the latest diet of Princess Diana-esque accounts of His story and importance. In death, as in life, Jackson will be over-scrutinised reducing his very considerable contributions to pop culture to the grotesquely absurd.


To a degree this is our fault. Nothing seems to fascinate us like a celebrity corpse – Elvis, John Lennon, Diana et al – and so his sorry carcase will be ritually poured over by the very people who scorned him for his own alleged morbid curiosity with the  remains of John Merrick. There are even rumours doing the rounds that the infamous Gunter von Hagen has a ‘contract’ to plasticize and display his remains alongside the already-stuffed Bubbles the Chimp. In the 02 arena no less. Whether this is true is almost beside the point. This is precisely the kind of rumour that should be circulating. It ‘feels’ right given what we know about Jackson the man, which is to say nothing.


One of the most inventive tributes I have read this week came from the pen of Germaine Greer who neatly side-stepped all this monstrosity and low-cultural tackiness by dreaming of Jackson as a mythic figure. Just like Orpheus, she opines, Jackson was a once beautiful boy sent here amongst mortals to teach us song and dance. But, alas, he was driven to destruction by the very adulation, and therefore isolation, his talents earned him. Whatever I think of La Greer’s particular take on it (nice backhanded references to the topic of her own new book though – good work!) I think there is a terribly compelling argument there somewhere amongst the academic nonsense.


Jackson throughout his career came to serve as an exemplar of a particular theoretical concern. He became a kind of postmodern oddity observed through the lens of postmodern and cultural theories. Which came first the chicken or the egg? I suppose you pay your money and take your choice. But for all our fascinations and anxieties about Jackson’s self-making and self-harming we did so adore rending him down, reconstructing him, and then tearing at his body and making little bite-sized chunks of it.


He will, of course, be forever associated with the casual omnipresence of Gothic tropes and figures in popular culture, and none more so than the groovy troupe of flesh-eating zombies in the ‘Thriller’ video. Perversely, like the von Hagen / Merrick rumours this now seems to have circled round to be focussing on us as complicit viewers and consumers. As the Goth queen in Titus Andronicus learns, the real horror lies in the moment of being confronted with the precise nature of the body you’ve been eating. But, as Jackson’s surge back to the top of the album charts shows, our appetites have not quite been satisfied yet.


Ultimately, Jackson did embody a kind of monstrosity. Probably the best tribute I’ve read (and I’ve bored myself keeping up with the saturation coverage these last few days) was by Observer and Newsnight Review critic Paul Morley. If you only want to read one more thing about Jackson, read this.

Jackson’s genius lays in his alarming multifaceted nature, his monstrous multiplicity. As Morley asks, which Jackson do we try to remember?

The loved Jackson, the gloved Jackson, the wealthy Jackson, the bankrupt Jackson, the Motown Jackson, the moonwalking Jackson, the MTV Jackson, the despised Jackson, the genius, the mutant, the addict, the oddball, the victim, the black, the white, the creepy, the glorious, the narcissist, the pathetic, the gentle, the monster.’

I could get all Deleuze and Guattari on you at this point. And someone probably will. But, enough is enough.

By Dr Andrew Sneddon




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