Will the verdict be child-like innocent… or child abuser?
Ekow Eshun says Michael Jackson presents himself as the victim of a vengeful media
When the world’s most famous pop star stands before a state of California judge in January, he faces the final verdict of a public trial that has lasted for two decades.
The singer is accused of multiple counts of lewd and lascivious conduct with a child under 14. Innocent or guilty, what will be revealed in the courtroom is the real face of Michael Jackson.
For the moment, with the singer out on a bail of £2 million, it’s still hard to say who he truly is. Not that we’re short of choices. Through the tabloids we have become familiar with ‘Wacko Jacko’ who sleeps in a hyperbaric chamber, dangles his baby out of a window, dyes his skin and shares a bed with young boys. Jackson himself would prefer that we saw him as the real-life Peter Pan, at his happiest riding the Ferris wheel in his 2,600-acre version of Never Never Land.
Less commonly sighted is the shrewd and driven businessman whose principal wealth comes from the co-ownership, with Sony Music, of a music publishing company that owns the rights to Jackson’s back catalogue, as well as more than 250 Beatles songs. Its estimated worth is close to $1 billion.
More recently we’ve also seen Jackson the victim of racism, who last year described the head of Sony as ‘mean, racist and very, very, very devilish’.
None of these figures adds up to a coherent whole. And this is why – in the sorting of reality from fantasy – that Jackson’s trial will eclipse even O.J. Simpson’s as a media spectacle. Here conflated are the desires and demonologies of modern times: celebrity, wealth, paedophilia and race.
Which of these truly apply to Jackson will be revealed in the coming months. They are all open to debate. Jackson remains the best-known entertainer on the planet. But his popularity is plummeting. Sales of his last album, Invincible, were woeful – two million in America compared with Thriller ‘s 23 million. And the announcement of criminal charges last week scuppered the launch of his greatest hits album. In the wake of Invincible’s failure, Jackson accused then-Sony chief Tommy Mottola of racism. Few African-American public figures rallied to his support. Even the normally outspoken Reverend Al Sharpton sided with Mottola.
With his decline as a commercial force, Jackson has increasingly cast himself as the prey of a vindictive media.
Having reached an out-of-court settlement for previous allegations of child molestation, he now presents himself as a faux-naïf who considers sharing a bed with a child ‘a beautiful thing’.
Jackson claims that the media misunderstand him. In a strange way, the extensive cosmetic surgery he appears to have undergone since the 1980s may have lent credibility to his assertion.
When signs of nose-altering and skin-lightening procedures first became visible, it was commonly said that Jackson was ‘trying to become white’.
Today, though, he looks less black or Caucasian than otherworldly. As a result, he also seems to float above ordinary, earthbound forms of behaviour. Could such an extravagantly odd-looking figure, with his wide, staring eyes, long, delicate limbs and porcelain skin, really be guilty – or even physically capable – of sexual abuse?
To see how much our perceptions of the singer are determined by his image, it’s instructive to think of an alternative Jackson for a moment.
Imagine a man without plastic surgery. In fact, let’s go further. Picture a man who’s allowed himself to go to seed. Imagine a fat and balding 44-year-old Jackson snuggling beneath the sheets with a boy of 13. What would we make of the Neverland sleep-overs then?
No one is accusing Jackson of corpulence or baldness, of course. But whether he is a child-like innocent or a predatory adult will be decided in court.
One thing’s for sure, though. We’ll never look at him the same way again.