Politics Top Blogs

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Michael Jackson, Jesus, and the Dark Economics of Celebrity in America

Years ago, Joni Mitchell sang about "the star maker machinery behind the popular song." She was right that there is, in effect, a machine -- a very powerful one -- involved in the making of fame, in the extraction of monetary value from talented or otherwise desirable individuals.

But she left out one important point. There's also a star breaker machinery that kicks in behind the fame of many celebrities, especially in the case of someone with fame the caliber of Michael Jackson who, at his peak, was not just a star but a megastar of astonishing, unprecedented proportions.

And, if we are to believe Michael Bloom, who represents himself as a scholar in the field of mass behavior and has served as a public relations guru for such artists as Michael Jackson, Prince, Simon & Garfunkel, and AC/DC, the negative energy of the star breaker machinery sometimes goes to work even before the culture's adoration and idolization of a given figure has reached its peak. Even while stars are still on the rise, a negative undercurrent can be simultaneously set in motion that begins to tear them down.

Interviewed Saturday by by Ian Punnet on Coast to Coast AM, Bloom discussed his first meeting with Michael Jackson's brothers shortly before the Victory Tour. Michael Jackson had already experienced astonishing success with Off the Wall, and Thriller had not yet been released. Reluctant to take on the Jacksons as new clients, Bloom said that the brothers virtually begged him for help in managing Michael's public image.

He believed that the brothers were already beginning to sense an emerging cultural phenomenon surrounding Michael that frightened them intuitively, even though they didn't yet have a clear understanding of its magnitude or wide-reaching implications. Bloom characterized this meeting, which took place in a New York hotel room, as a veritable cry for him to help them "save Michael's soul."

As Punnet's interview continued, Bloom went on to give an example of what he saw as the beginning, shortly after he agreed to work with the Jacksons, of the star-breaker machinery's operation in Michael's case. First by happenstance, a music critic for the Boston Herald, which had always badly lagged the Boston Globe in circulation, published an article on Michael Jackson that led to the Herald selling a record number of copies. On the day the Michael Jackson article was published, the Herald outsold the Globe.

With the Herald's management fascinated with the power of extreme celebrity to drive sales, the scope of the critic's role at the paper was expanded, and he was issued a "quota" requiring a set number of Michael Jackson stories over defined intervals.

It's easy to see the burden this could place on a journalist. Even with major stars, the amount of "real" news that is sufficient to sustain reader interest is likely to be limited. So it would seem that imposing production quotas on compelling celebrity stories would create an unspoken pressure toward at least some level of embellishment in order to attract attention. And while in the 1980s there was nothing new about sensationalistic celebrity journalism, tabloid papers, or harassing paparazzi, Bloom seems to imply that the explosion of reporting on Michael Jackson raised it to an entirely new level. Inevitably, the tenor of this reporting grew increasingly negative because, as everyone knows, bad news outsells good.

Bloom implied further that the workings of this star-breaker machinery were instrumental in Jackson's increasingly isolated existence and separation from the real world and its norms. In the interview, Bloom seemed adamant in his belief that Jackson, in spite of his child-like worldview, had at his core a fundamental morality that would have precluded the acts against children of which he was accused. But he also contended that the unreal, "boy in the bubble" existence that fame imposed prevented Jackson from developing a sound understanding of the acceptable norms of adult behavior, making him vulnerable to actions that would attract suspicions of impropriety.

The child abuse allegations further intensified the machinations of negative publicity surrounding Jackson. In the Punnet interview, Bloom seemed to imply that this initiated a self-reinforcing cycle that drove Jackson further away from reality and into self-destructive, dysfunctional behaviors that, ultimately, may have played a direct role in his untimely death.

Although it operates on negative energy, the star breaker machinery nevertheless functions as another means of extracting value from commoditized celebrities. It does so through such channels as tabloid newspaper and celebrity magazine sales, and ratings of television programs that air celebrity gossip. In some cases, ironically, it even benefits the celebrity, since even negative publicity helps maintain a presence before the public, creating a sensationalistic form of energy that can sometimes generate revenue.

It is quite possible, for example, that the negative publicity surrounding Michael Jackson in recent years helped set the stage for what was positioned to be a cash cow of a comeback tour. And without the attention of tabloids and papparazi over the past 10 years or so, it's possible that Jackson's star may have faded more rapidly as he advanced further beyond his prime.

Ironically, the kind of negative energy generated by the star breaker machinery may be at its most effective in a case like Jackson's when the celebrity suddenly, unexpectedly, and tragically dies. As with Elvis, the death of Michael Jackson is generating a tremendous resurgence in sales of his music. Perhaps these sales will even surpass the revenue that the comeback tour would have generated, all due to the fact that his death, like many aspects of his life, was a tragic spectacle.

But the most important question, in my opinion, is why the star breaker machinery works so effectively. Why is there so much of a market for negative publicity? Why do we start breaking down many of our brightest stars, sometimes even before their buildup has reached its peak?

Normally I steer clear of matters of faith in this blog, but there is a very old story that sets what I believe is the singular example of how deeply this phenomenon is embedded in human nature. Two thousand years ago, a 33 year old man, whose level of public adoration during his lifetime was just reaching its peak, rode triumphantly on a donkey into one of the greatest cities of his region. The crowds worshiped and exalted him, waving palm fronds to salute him, initiating the tradition that Christians now observe as Palm Sunday.

Yet just a few days later, an angry mob demanded, in spite of an offer of mercy from the authorities, that the same man be executed by hanging from a cross. The masses turned on Jesus just a short time after his public acclaim had reached its peak.

Jesus came to be hated by many people of his time for a number of reasons. For some, the issue was that he preached about matters of the the Kingdom of God, of the fate of the eternal soul, which didn't fit their vision of a Messiah who would bring them political and material gain during their life on earth. But in other cases Jesus confronted people with unpleasant realities about themselves about which they were in denial, and with basic flaws, contradictions, and hypocrisies in their way of life. Others, such as the religious leaders of Jesus' day, were perhaps envious of his abilities as a spiritual leader and teacher.

In different ways, the celebrities we elevate can also make us uncomfortable with ourselves. Our psychological relationships with those we lift up into fame are complex and paradoxical. And, as in the case of Jesus, envy is a salient element. The qualities of talent, beauty, genius, wealth, and fame that we so admire also confront the rest of us with everything that we are not.

To those who have remarkable natural gifts can come possessions, privileges, and lifestyles that are inaccessible to the rest of us, and that can lead to envy. Envy may be the reason why the public is so ready to pounce at the first sign of a flaw in someone we have elevated as a supposedly perfect person. And the negative energy of that envy is something that can be monetized by the tabloids, the paparazzi, and their ilk.

This phenomenon is perhaps intensified and made more visible in our modern, media intensive world. But it really is nothing new, as is evident from its presence as a theme running through history and literature. King David's own sons envied his throne and conspired against him. Iago envied Othello and schemed to bring him down.

What is perhaps unique to our era, however, is the level to which the media machine that drives popular culture is geared to feed off of this phenomenon, to use it as a means of continuing to milk value out of famous people even while they are on their way down from the heights of stardom. The pattern bears a chilling resemblance to the process of a brand manager guiding a consumer product through the phases of its life cycle. The workings of the star maker and star breaker machinery treat celebrities almost like a corporation might treat a brand of soap, through its launch, growth curve, peak, and eventual decline.

It's difficult, of course, for "the rest of us" to know whether this seemingly heartless pattern of managing human beings as product life cycles might be something that those within the elite spheres of celebrity expect, understand, and accept as a known risk and worthwhile tradeoff for the benefits that they enjoy. Neil Young, after all, sang that "it's better to burn out than to fade away."

As I write this, I am listening to Gotham Chopra commenting on CNN that Michael Jackson was keenly aware of and spoke often about artists like James Dean, Elvis, and John Lennon, whose untimely deaths helped immortalize their legacies and elevate them from mere stardom into almost mythic proportions. So perhaps he sensed this coming and, as an artist, was not entirely adverse to the concept.

But the event of Michael Jackson's death, nevertheless, might give all of us pause, as consumers of popular culture, to examine the complex psychological and sociological dynamics that underlie our relationship with those we build up and break down. The star breaker machinery would not be relevant if not for our collective willingness to fuel it with attention and revenue. Sphere: Related Content

No comments:

Post a Comment

MyBlog2u.com - Blog Directory Blog Listings http://www.blogcatalog.com/directory/economicblogs/useconics