I recently found these badges in HMV. They appealed to me because I do indeed love MJ, and I absolutely love moonwalking. I felt a pang at the sight of them though, hanging on a carousel alongside badges for Robert Pattison, Justin Bieber and Muse. Being a fan of Michael Jackson was being sanctioned by a small merchandising company in Sheffield, confident in the knowledge that now, since his death, on-message teenagers proudly pin "King of Pop" to their lapels. A badge pack no less, four badges for four different outfits.
It wasn't always this way. Ten or fifteen years ago, the phrase “King of Pop” was derided by the press and most people as self-proclaimed and meaningless. We used it though, chanted it, painted it on bed sheets torn into banners, but back then we were crazed, in denial, blindly devoted to a paedophile.
You see, I was a fan of Michael Jackson. I don’t mean that I liked his music; I mean that, for a period in my life, he occupied my every thought. I was obsessed. I was so dedicated in fact, I worked for the British Michael Jackson Fan Club, building their first website, writing articles for the fanzine and taking phone calls from TV and radio crews whenever Michael was in the news. I saw him in concert over 12 times, travelling by coach to stadiums around Europe, and sleeping overnight outside the gates for a chance to be in the hallowed front row. I waited for hours with other fans outside his hotels, chanting his name, my eyes trained on a single open window, and screaming at the sight of a suddenly extended, thin, white arm. I wrote impassioned letters to newspapers complaining about the treatment he suffered at the hands of the vicious but intangible "media". I hung out with Michael Jackson impersonators. I met him twice.
So at 10.30 at night on Thursday 25 June 2009, my phone – the number unchanged since the mid '90s – blew up with calls from news outlets looking for my views, and friends checking I’d heard the news and was alright. People I hadn’t heard from in years left condolences on my Facebook page. An ex-boyfriend even wrote me an email. To all of them I said: I was fine.
But I wasn’t. It was strange, seeing him – the same clips I used to watch every day after school – and thinking of him no longer as my Michael, but as a figure who, if you believed the tributes, suddenly meant something to everyone. I felt a jolt, like the one you feel when the familiar face of someone you know appears on television, and yet I had to admit, sadly, that it was familiar because, well, as faces go it was pretty recognisable. My personal affinity with the most famous person in the world was being submerged by an outpouring of public sentiment that angered me: where were you in 1993? 2004?, I thought. Back then, watching people declare their respect and love for my idol was unimaginable; he was a laughing stock, an outcast, more readily associated with his mugshot than his moonwalk. It didn't matter that he was found innocent; the damage was done. And now, dead at the age of 50 after numbing the pain with hospital anaesthetic, he's an icon?
I bought the badges. I am a fan, I can’t help it (just like I couldn’t help buying this Limited Edition Thriller Michael Jackson bath duck). But I don’t wear them on my lapel, because everyone’s a fan nowadays.
I thought about this again when I read Leila’s post about the standardisation of what it is to be a geek. I really love what she and some of the commenters have to say about authenticity as a dividing factor between the ur-geek and the new common appropriation of the word. In the post, Leila attempts to write a definition for "geek", a term that has become as devalued through overuse as the term "fan":
“In my opinion, a geek is someone who's very very into something – someone who really understands something, or at the very least, loves it so much it doesn’t matter. But, without wishing to sound overly soppy, to love is to want to understand, I think.”
I really loved Michael Jackson. In some ways I was a geek: I know the full name and birthdate of every Jackson (there are over 40), and I can hear an MJ bassline at 20 yards, whether it’s next in the mix or playing in a shopping centre. I spent years poring over photos, reading accounts by people who knew him, and desperately trying to understand him. But more important than that, his music made me happy, his dancing made me ecstatic, and when I saw him perform live, I almost died from screaming. I loved that he was batshit crazy, sending statues of himself down the Thames, and, right up until he died, planning to build a 50-foot robot of himself in the Nevada desert that shot lasers from its eyes. And despite all that, I was certain he was more normal than people thought, and adamant that he was loveable.
This commitment marked me out, and it made me feel special. I felt special because I understood and defended someone no-one else would, and in turn that made me special in other people's eyes, because, frankly, that's kinda weird.
Looking at these badges, I realise it's not just Michael who's been commercialised, but my fandom too. And that makes me sad.