Rivkah Writes…

July 10, 2009

Man in the Mirror: Michael Jackson and Dorian Gray

In his 19th Century novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” Oscar Wilde created an ingenious metaphor for corruption – a portrait of untarnished innocence slowly perverted by evil. In the beginning of the novel, Dorian Gray, the subject of the portrait, declares he would rather die than grow old and ugly, and makes a wish that the inevitable toll of life be visited on his portrait, rather than himself. Dorian’s wish comes true, albeit not quite as he intends. For Dorian doesn’t just grow older, he also loses his innocence. And, each step he takes down the path of degradation incrementally distorts and disfigures his picture, until it becomes a loathsome representation of Dorian’s ruined soul. When Dorian finally confronts what he has become, he recoils from his beautiful face, knowing full well what it conceals. Determined to destroy the picture, aka, his guilty conscience, Dorian stabs it. Yet when his servants hear Dorian cry out, they find the body of a man with a monstrously evil face sprawled beside his portrait – which once again depicts him in all his youthful innocence.

In many ways, we can use “The Picture of Dorian Gray” to understand the tragedy of Michael Jackson. As the beautiful, irresistibly talented young man soared to the heights of fame, his oddities seemed to grow apace. And, as the rumors of his behavior grew more insidious, the beautiful face grew increasingly distorted, plasticized, artificial, surreal. Unlike Dorian Gray, however, Michael had no painted doppelganger to absorb his disfigurements – he had to deal with them in the flesh. While the causes of Michael’s facial changes are well documented – vitiligo, plastic surgery, drugs, etc. – from a literary perspective, it seemed the alleged perversions of which he was accused had slowly turned outward, destroying the perfection of the once beautiful, mischievous – but for all that – innocent face. The change began innocuously enough – no longer a child sensation, Michael strived for more edge. In the process, though, the whoops of joy became whoops of anger, the handsome male, a handsome anomaly, the fluid movements, an exercise in jerky, twisted virtuosity. Ultimately Michael’s dead eyes, waxy-pallor, and frozen features became a parody of the dancing eyed, adorable dimpled, enormously talented man we knew. The adopted eccentricities – masks, veils, etc – served only to emphasize this irrevocable transformation.

Forced to bear his physical and moral disfigurements in life, in death, Michael has been given a second chance. And, as Dorian Gray’s death restored his portrait to its innocent perfection, Michael’s demise has restored his reputation. In our minds and in our hearts, he is the joyous, good humored, beautiful young man we remember him to be. And in memory of that man, we deal kindly with the poor, ruined face of the Man in the Mirror.

For more on the Michael Jackson tragedy from “Rivkah Writes…” see Thrill Seeker.

June 28, 2009

Thrill Seeker

Growing up, I never paid much attention to Michael Jackson, although we were practically contemporaries. I always enjoyed his music – could anyone not move irrepressibly to the rhythm of his songs? – yet the paraphernalia of his idiosyncrasies never occupied center stage of my mind. I was too busy dealing with my own burgeoning angst, seeking an elusive perfection – in appearance, in accomplishments – that dog me to this day. Watching the retrospectives of the last few days, though, including videos of the hits I had (believe it or not) never seen before, I am struck by the fact that in our pursuit of perfection, Michael and I ran on parallel trajectories. The difference is, I’m still in hot pursuit, while Michael’s run out of time. And before anyone gets bent out of shape, of course I’m not putting myself in the same category as this musical legend. It’s not my talent I’m equating with Michael’s, just his thrill-seeking striving for perfection.

For some people, myself included, no joy comes close to that thrill of accomplishment. And that’s all well and good. The problem is not excellence per se, but the pursuit of excellence, which becomes a curse in and of itself. Like many tormented perfectionists, Michael was never content to rest on his laurels, to take a step back, to simply enjoy his accomplishments, because there was always another barrier to conquer, another goal to attain, another “first” to dream up, choreograph, and perform. But what’s a superstar to do once he’s created the best selling album of all time, conquered racial and cultural boundaries, used the cultural signifiers of his day to produce cutting edge iconography and videography, raised tens of millions of dollars for Africa, ripped his shirt, given back, and given his all, over and over again? The burden must have been enormous, unimaginable. And so by the time Michael was in his 30s, he had scaled the summit of his innovative powers and reached the dark side.

Despite his crotch grabbing, hip thrusting, chin jutting postures, Michael was clearly confused about his sexuality. Watch his video for “The Way You Make Me Feel.”*  See how he circles his female prey, hurls his desire at her like a challenge, yet neither touches nor dances with the supposed girl of his dreams. Never fully gown up, Michael took up the Peter Pan persona in earnest, turning his home into a theme park, and playing dubious games with children that had the media up in arms. And, as he slowly transformed himself through layers of surgical artifice, the grotesque result seemed to parody the songs that had brought him fame. Here was the “Man in the Mirror,” turning in horror from the “Thriller” he had spawned. Here was what happened when Michael, in truth, could neither “Stop” nor “Get Enough,” when “Beat It” became the command he used to drive himself to further and further feats of the bizarre until there was no turning back. From the pinnacle of fame Michael had reached the pinnacle of notoriety. What else remained but to bow out, tragically?

I am not and never was in Michael’s league, either professionally or personally. My struggle’s just that of your average OCD personality who, as I’ve said before,** can never cut him- or herself enough slack. Every day, though, my unhealthy tendencies are redeemed by a loving family that give me the kick in the butt I need to stay sane – and alive. It’s a shame no one could do the same for the legendary King of Pop.

 

* “The Way You Make Me Feel,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sEU9Q8NlOiY.

**In “The Dream Lives On: In an Open Letter to Susan Boyle” I wrote:

 “As a fellow masochist, I too make incredible demands of myself, get depressed for inevitably falling short, yet would never dream of imposing such demands on my husband, children, or loved ones. To everyone other than myself, I am kind, patient, encouraging, and tender – yet I cannot be that person for myself.”

Blog at WordPress.com.