July 14, 2009
Jackson Idolatry and the Conservative ResponseBy J. Robert Smith
Michael Jackson is just the latest in a line of dead celebrities whose freakish or tragic lives are the stuff of hero worship. What that hero worship is indicative of is culture rot. What conservatives need to do is stand against rot and for the culture's health.
Let's get past the obvious. Michael Jackson had a raw talent and instinctive showmanship. That pop music fans would be attracted to him for those reasons isn't bad. But a lot of fans didn't stop there. Celebrity worship means falling in love with the whole package. It means making excuses for celebrities' faults. Or making virtues out of their vices. And, sadly, it means many fans - overwhelmingly young - attempting to emulate their heroes' faults - the very faults that often have been rationalized as virtues.
All of this is aided and abetted by popular culture's mavens and the media. The reasons are mixed. One is that popular culture is overwhelming inhabited by the anti-conventional. They like the offbeat. It's nearly a religion to them. A guy like Michael Jackson who remade his face to resemble Diana Ross' was just expressing himself. And neuter is better than macho. Sashaying is superior to swaggering.
Other reasons mostly revolve around money. Michael Jackson wasn't merely a livelihood for himself; he was a cash cow for others, starting with his father, and then managers, handlers of all sorts, record labels and concert promoters, to name some. Plenty of magazines boosted their circulations publicizing his bizarre antics.
Imagine Michael Jackson coming on the scene a couple of generations ago. What would have been the tolerance level for a man in his thirties or forties acknowledging that he had sleepovers with children? That alone would have earned him the bum's rush. Just his indictment for taking sexual liberties with a boy would have guaranteed him a one-way ticket to oblivion.
Yes, Jackson was acquitted of the charge. In the eyes of the law, he wasn't guilty. And, perhaps, he wasn't. But one wonders if the reportedly hefty out-of-court settlement with another boy's family was more than a way to rid himself of a nuisance.
The Good and the Bad: the 1950s
The genesis of worshipping reprobate celebrities began post World War II. Whereas the 1950s were the zenith of square American values and mores, it was also their last hurrah, at least in the sense that it was the last time there was a broad consensus in their favor.
Into the fifties, celebrities needed at least to appear to be good guys and gals. Stand-up sorts. If married, then faithful to their spouses. Drunk and drugged wasn't fashionable. Celebs may have been big brothers or sisters to waifs, but not their bunkies.
Think of actors Alan Ladd, John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart. Actresses Doris Day, Grace Kelly and Susan Hayward. Stand-up sorts. Even fifties rock ‘n roll wasn't drenched in drugs and sex. Elvis, vintage fifties, may have gyrated when he danced, but TV cameras only shot him from the waist up. Elvis loved his momma and said "Yes, sir or ma'am," and "please." Brenda Lee was a nice girl. The Everly Brothers were clean-cut guys.
The counter is that whatever their appearances, many of these celebrities had messy personal lives. Studios or publicists did good jobs covering up scandals or sordid affairs. The charge against the times is hypocrisy.
There was, indeed, some hypocrisy. But as the old saying goes, "Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue."
Back then, American society set the bar higher for conduct. If you didn't reach the bar, there were penalties. Miscreants were ostracized, not lionized. Celebrities were at least expected to talk the talk. And, chances are, penalties for bad behavior kept more than a few of the famous from indulging lurid appetites. They sure didn't flaunt them.
But in the fifties, the seeds were also being sown for a newer, darker celebrity.
Marlon Brando trail blazed the Angry Young Man persona. Rebellion suddenly became cool. Quick on Brando's heels, James Dean came to exemplify the surly, misunderstood adolescent. Killing himself at twenty-four speeding sealed the deal.
Then there was Kerouac and the Beats, precursors to the hippies. Kerouac's "On the Road," among other Beat writings, gave hedonism an intellectual and artistic underpinning. The Beats' ethos began to gain acceptance in wider circles, especially among leftwing intellectuals, the avant-garde and the disaffected.
Kerouac drank himself to death in the 1960s.
The 1960s and Beyond
While the Beats were about sex, drugs (principally, alcohol and marijuana) and jazz, the next wave - the hippies - would forgo jazz in favor of rock ‘n roll. Powerful psychotropic drugs emerged. Hippies made the Beats look puritanical by comparison.
The Beatles came on the scene in 1964 with a different sound and squeaky-clean images. But that's not how they, or other rockers, ended the decade. Nor many of their fans.
The mid sixties gave America the "Summer of Love"; 1967 was its epicenter. Psychedelic drugs - most notably, LSD - were in vogue, along with Flower Power and free love (i.e., sex without commitment or marriage).
The Beatles were in the vanguard, giving their fans the then mind-bending album "Sgt. Peppers' Lonely Hearts Club Band." If kids weren't wearing flowers in their hair, painting their faces, smoking dope and dropping acid, and having sex whenever with whomever, they just weren't hip.
But the Summer of Love ended in a bitter winter. The hippie movement became politicized and radicalized. Political consciousness became the rage. Opposition to the Vietnam War was the flashpoint. Groups like Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Black Panthers, led by the Tom Haydens and Stokely Carmichaels, capitalized on the hippies' anti-establishment leanings. Riots, like the ones outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, eclipsed Love Ins.
Rockers gave this dreary turn their blessings. Their music became angry, bleak and insistent, reflecting and amplifying the changes among the hippies. The Who, the Rolling Stones, Jefferson Airplane and the Doors became touchstones.
The Altamont Free Concert, in December of 1969, was particularly troubling. Featuring the Rolling Stones, the concert was marred by drug-induced violence and death. The Hell's Angels were hired to provide security. This pack of criminals did so with the zeal of fascist thugs, killing a concert-goer in the process.
Preceding Altamont was the Woodstock Festival in August, 1969. If the Summer of Love was about innocence embracing debauchery, Woodstock was about the debauchery of lost innocence.
The four-day "Aquarian Exposition," as Woodstock was deemed, was an orgy of drugs and sex. It should have been called a "Wallow in the Mud" - literally. A weekend of rain made it so.
The Who gave fans such memorable moments as Pete Townsend knocking Yippie Abbie Hoffman offstage with his guitar (Townsend would later smash his guitar onstage in the band's finale). Their ditty, the Acid Queen, captured a good deal of what Woodstock and the late sixties were about.
Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin added their talents. Both would die of drug overdoses early in the 1970s.
Since the fifties and sixties, too many rockers and actors have added their names to the list of dead celebrities. Jim Morrison, Cass Eliot, Keith Moon and Elvis gave up their ghosts in the 1970s, all to drugs or alcohol. Disco had its own roster of stars, and gave disillusioned hippies hedonism for its own sake; no need to dress it up with elegant rationalizations. And the Disco culture gave more than a few stars and fans cocaine addictions and sexually transmitted diseases, like AIDS.
In later years, John Belushi, Freddie Mercury, River Phoenix, Chris Farley, Kurt Cobain and Michael Hutchence (INXS), most notably, killed themselves with drugs or sex, or some combination thereof.
These days, rappers have added to the list with good old fashion gunplay. The notorious Tupac Shakur and the so-named Notorious B.I.G. finished their careers and lives bullet-ridden.
Gangsta rap has certainly lived up to its billing.
The Conservative Response
With Michael Jackson's passing, conservatives, more than on past occasions, have spoken out vigorously about the preposterous attempts to venerate the so-called King of Pop. Conservative talkers - Sean Hannity, especially - are serving as counterweights to the Jackson adulation. They've freely discussed his foibles and demons. As well they should, because unchecked, Jackson, like many other dead celebrities, will take on a stature greater in death than in life.
Jackson's self-inflicted sufferings and death (likely from narcotics abuse) aren't romance. He was a profoundly disturbed man, not a role model. His tragedy needs to be a cautionary tale, not an occasion to elevate and glorify the perverse.
Of course, the moneymakers and nihilists that drive popular culture have every reason to add Michael Jackson to the pantheon of tragic dead celebrities. That's their contribution, wittingly or not, to the ongoing war against traditional American culture.
Conservatives can't waver in fighting on this front. Traditional American culture is honest, decent and life-affirming. It aspires to a greater good. It celebrates heroes, in life and myth, who stood for virtue, and who, when necessary, fought and sacrificed for the goo.