Monday, April 22, 2019

Genius, Celebrity, and Morality: Michael Jackson

I never cared much about Michael Jackson, but I find the public wrangling about his legacy interesting. How should we judge the lives of artistic or other talents?

A lot of people think Michael Jackson was a genius as a musician and entertainer. Some of them are also fascinated by the way he overcame (as they see it) his early life as a child star relentlessly managed by his borderline abusive parents and remade himself as his own person with his own style and brand. To them his obvious weirdness was simply the product of his background and the artistic ferment that kept him creative, and people who found him creepy (there were plenty, from the beginning) just did not appreciate his transgressive genius.

Other people think Jackson was obviously crazy, in the sense that he had come unmoored from reality, and probably a monster of some sort. When the first allegations of child abuse surfaced in 1993 these critics felt that their intuitions had been confirmed. That cloud never really lifted from Jackson, and he was actually tried for child abuse in 2005. His acquittal on those charges led his defenders to cry "witch hunt" and claim or insinuate that his accusers were just out for money and his public critics were just philistine spoilsports who wanted, for reasons of jealousy or narrowmindedness or racism, to drag this celestial talent down to earth.

Reactions to the HBO documentary "Leaving Neverland" have spawned further fights and divisions. Some people think the allegations brought by James Safechuck and Wade Robson are obviously true, and we can now convict Jackson post mortem of the crimes for which he evaded punishment until now. Others point out that the allegations made in Jackson's 2005 trial also seemed convincing at first, but after Jackson's lawyers picked them apart he was acquitted, and since we can't have a trial now we can't just believe these accusations.

Underlying all of this seems to be a feeling that accepting the child abuse allegations means giving up Jackson's music. For those who loved the music and derived great joy from his act, this is very hard. Some people seem to be seizing on any thread of evidence that might exonerate Jackson as a way to hold onto that joy. On the other hand some of the critics seem mainly interested in asserting that morality is higher than art. Instead of glorying in the crazy acts of oddball celebrities, we should all be in church or keeping our noses to the grindstone or something, anything but admiring dubious characters whose very existence is a threat to virtue and good order.

Jackson was obviously a very strange man who enjoyed the company of children, including in his bed. What else he did with them seems to me like a black hole; nothing said by his accusers or his defenders has to me shed much light. I just don't trust anyone where there is so much money and fame at stake.

But suppose it is all true; where does that leave his fans? It's an important question. Great artists are certainly no better than other people and I think there is some evidence that they are generally worse. The same seems to be true of athletes, entrepreneurs, politicians, chefs, preachers, and public figures in general: if there is any correlation between public prominence and good behavior it is a negative one. That might just be because they have more opportunities to sin, although I think that megalomania is a very useful thing for people who want to succeed in our world.

Does it matter? I suppose it depends on what sort of world you want. If you want virtuous world where all bad deeds are punished and wickedness is never rewarded, then you should stop listening to music made by Jackson and all the other wretched sinners. If you want a world full or riotous fun and mockery of the rules, where creativity is its own justification, you should go put on "Thriller." Me, I want a world that is somewhere in between. I think we need virtue and duty, but that a world made only of virtue and duty would be intolerable. I have never spurned any art because of its creator's crimes. On the other hand I have never surrendered to fandom in anything, because I feel sure in my heart that the artists I most admire are probably monsters of some sort, and I prefer to keep my distance from their vanity and ambition.

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