I wrote a thing last year on this date, and thought I would this year too.
When Michael Jackson died, three years ago today, a friend of mine and I noted how some fans didn’t miss a beat. Their behaviour was unchanged: they went from being fans of Michael Jackson to being fans of him in death. The fact that he had died was almost irrelevant – and, true enough, he was as close and real to them as he’d ever been.
Remembering the day of his death, lighting candles, counting down the days. The rituals of reminding everyone of today’s dark and auspicious aspect – getting phrases like RIP Michael Jackson to trend on Twitter (surely the equivalent of shaking someone awake and saying, “sleep tight!”), writing heartfelt open letters, delivering 10,000 roses to his place of rest – are pretty unchanged from the activities we used to get up to when he was alive (and – I want to be really clear about this – when I was 16. Sixteen).
I’ve started to think that fandom and memorialisation have something in common. Are the same in fact. There’s something morbid in a fan’s desire to distil and immortalise their idol, to hold them up as a beacon of virtue in the midst of wavering, unreliable humanity.
Fame is in the act of subjugation: it isn’t down to the intrinsic value of someone, but the willingness of others to raise someone up. It’s the act that’s important, not the person, from the burly chap who gets a MUM tattoo on his arm, to the girl crying at the sight of Justin Bieber.
So when people who deride Z-list celebs and call them “famous for being famous”, they’re missing the point of fame entirely.
The phrase originated in the 1960s, and was brought into wider use by Malcolm Muggeridge when in 1967 he wrote:
“In the past if someone was famous or notorious, it was for something—as a writer or an actor or a criminal; for some talent or distinction or abomination. Today one is famous for being famous. People who come up to one in the street or in public places to claim recognition nearly always say: ‘I’ve seen you on the telly!'”
– Muggeridge Through The Microphone (1967)
Yes, fame had previously been the outcome of unusual personal achievement. Before television and the internet, the channels through which your name might be transmitted required that you’d written a whole book, or become a leader in your field, or, when daily newspapers came along, murdered someone in a highly unusual way. Better still if you wrote naughty poems, or highlighted the plight of soldiers in one of the world’s first widely reported war (it helped, too, if you were white).
But that does nothing to explain the transformative effect of fame – what happens to a person as soon as their name is known.
I could not believe Jade Goody had died. Here was a woman whose entire irreducible schtick was based on her normality, her mundanity, and yet when she died, the most normal and mundane thing of all, it seemed unreal.
The episode was grim in the extreme: played out in front of millions, from the moment she was told her diagnosis on air, to the cortege that carried her coffin back through Bermondsey back to Essex. It didn’t seem possible that she would actually die, that this was it, that there wouldn’t be some last-minute reprieve or reveal.
And yet there wasn’t, just like there isn’t for other 27-year-old women every day. As Eddie Izzard said when Princess Diana died:
“My mum died when I was six and my brother was eight. No one gave a shit.”
And he’s right. It’s not fair. There’s nothing fair about fame. Fame is not about levelling up, according people acclaim based on their relative merit or achievements. Fame does not inspire hard-worn admiration for a person’s achievements – if they exist, they’re the icing on the cake – no, fame is indiscriminate. It suggests someone is simply better than others. That they are intrisically of more value, separate, living where the laws of nature don’t apply. Their hair falls in glossy, effortless waves. Their thighs do not stick together in the heat. They can do a cheeky wink without looking like a boss-eyed, leery lech. They know how to stand when someone takes a photo, and not to tense up like an incontinent water buffalo. They are better than you.
Understandably people don’t like the sound of that. How can Kim Kardashian be better than me?, I hear you say. Justin Bieber’s just some kid who got lucky, why should he get all this attention? Paris Hilton, give me a break. I have a degree. I work hard for a living. My sentences don’t go up at the end?
This week a headteacher questioned our obsession with characters like the Kardashians:
“What is she telling our young people about life? As a society, we have clearly attached a value to her, and there may be some messages about hard work buried in there somewhere – I expect she has to slave in the gym to keep that posterior in shape – but these are very hidden messages, buried under the other messages surrounded by glitz and sparkle”.
– Dr Helen Wright, quoted by The Telegraph, 19 June 2012
She’s right. Unfortunately the people we put on pedestals carry with them all kinds of wrong messages. So nowadays we enlightened folk prefer to talk about “equals”. We scoff at people’s pretensions, and delight in pulling the rug from beneath their feet. We look down on those who subjugate themselves at the feet of another as deluded and primitive.
The trouble is up close, we’re all pretty confusing. We let each other down, think irrational things, and act “out of character”. Sometimes putting a bit of distance between ourselves and a select few gives us the perspective on others we need.
And Michael Jackson – well, I don’t think I ever quite got that he was alive. That he walked the same planet as me, was standing on stage in front of me, or, once – a bunch of us crowded round the door outside at a fan convention – used the same loo.
In the years before his death, I was no longer what we call an “active fan”. Watching from afar – and this makes me feel very guilty – I would prophesy an early death for him. It wasn’t a particularly hard fate to envisage, especially given his final few years. Accusation, absolution, walking the world for years, and then – his words – the “final curtain call”, a last chance to prove himself. I’ve often thought he had the making of a tragic hero.
Besides, who can imagine Michael Jackson aged 70, 80? It must have been strange for those who knew him as a child watching him age (even he knew it – his natural adult features were so alien to him he just thought, fuck it. Let’s go nuts).
In the end, I found that celebrity when you’re not a fan is so alienating, and takes on a narrative way beyond the actual person involved, I longed for him to die.
Then nothing could happen to change my version of him: he would never hit a bum note, cancel another concert, release a dud record (he never did), be laughed at by Jarvis Cocker, or wrongly arrested. Nothing that could let me down, crush my dreams.
Three years on, he makes much more sense to me now that he’s dead. People do, don’t they?