I went to a talk last week at the LRB Bookshop, where Will Self, Nicholas Spice, Helen Jeffrey and Dan Franklin debated the merits of the so-called "digital essay". I wrote another piece for The Literary Platform about it.
Nicholas Spice, publisher of the London Review of Books, doesn’t pull any punches. In the middle of the discussion, and after a few defences of the concept of a ‘digital essay’, he asked: “Does visualising words weaken how they work on our brain?”
It's here. I'd love to know what you think - were you there? Have you read the essay? Did I give it a fair hearing?
I wrote a thing for The Literary Platform, a website showcasing projects that experiment with literature and technology:
"More than any other art form, literature requires the concentration of its audience. A film continues while you scramble at the floor for your phone; actors on stage carry on while you fish that Malteser out of your bra; a TV programme ploughs on even though you’ve left the room. Stop concentrating while reading however, and a written work simply stops."
It's about literary projects on The Space, the "pop-up" online arts service funded by BBC and Arts Council. I've written on a similar subject before, so it turned into something about the act of reading in a digital age. So. Yeah. Read it.
The journal is edited by a group of whip-smart guys, and, as I understand it, was born out of a desire to write, and to explore different ideas without an end in sight. A sort of jaunt, excursion, ramble. A junket.
I have a framed copy of this photo in my bathroom, the room where people display their certificates and graduation photos, those proud moments they want their guests to see. It's high up by the toilet in the corner. You could easily miss it. I sometimes wonder if the eyes of male guests notice it while they stand at the loo.
I have it there because it shows people what Michael Jackson means to me, it says that I am a fan.
It's a picture taken by Annie Leibovitz, in a series of snaps for Vanity Fair that tried to capture his essence as he dances up a storm. In this one he stares impassively forward as he balances on his toes, his whole body still like he's doing nothing special. What is he thinking? How can he stay so still? Does he know his nipple is showing? It doesn't matter: it's a picture taken of him in October 1989 at, as the caption on my copy says, "the peak of his career".
Being a fan involves demonstrating your devotion to others. It requires you to identify as a fan. I'm not sure it works without that. Learning by rote the release date of every record so you can dazzle (dazzle) your friends, or saying proudly, "I love that guy". We all walk about with our preferences visible: "I love NY", "Liverpool FC forever", a tattoo of our childrens' names, the Guardian tucked under our arm.
Our allegiances say something about us. I think, looking back, standing outside his hotel all those days, chanting his name, saving up money to see him in concert so many times, said something to me about my tenacity, my loyalty, my depth of love. I was 17. How else was I going to find out if I had those qualities? I lived in Surrey in England. I had to do well at school if I was going to go to university. I was going to have to do something pretty drastic for something interesting to happen.
Besides, he needed me. Fans were part of Michael's image: they amassed wherever he went, screamed his name, and fainted at his concerts. He filmed this adulation and edited it into concert footage, fans pounding the window of his car, slamming against the front barrier of a stadium before a concert, crying and screaming and praying as he leaps on stage. When I ran after him, got my place in the front row or peered through the blacked-out window of his car, I was one of those fans, a star of one of his videos.
The fan imagery continued in videos for his latestsingles, culminating in one promo taking a cue from that ultimate director of frenzied fanaticism, Leni Riefenstahl. He even built statues of himself (okay, so they were more styrofoam than granite), and sent them round the world ahead of his tour dates. He needed adulation. His fame was based on it.
As the world turned against him, us fans were desperate to show we were still there. The press could never understand how, after years of bad publicity and bear baiting, people still stood and waited of their own free will for a glimpse of a man who'd seen better days. In time we were accused of being mercenaries, that we were fake, part of a huge publicity machine, paid or somehow inveigled to stand at the spot he'd be at and shout his name.
Now that he is gone, the people behind Michael Jackson™ continue to wring every dollar they can out of his name, including the recent video to Michael's sketchy and remastered rendition of 'Behind the Mask', an Eric Clapton hit he helped write in the early 80s, in the creative glow between Off the Wall and Thriller.
Never mind that YouTube is already full to the brim with betterfantributes (and oh my god you wouldn't believe how many bad ones). They've jumped on the bandwagon, creating a montage of fanmade videos that have been edited and sanctioned by his hated music company, Sony:
Their social media strategy is in full swing too, asking fans to send in their pics of them with Michael (cue the sound of thousands of copies of photoshop opening), tweeting daily "facts", hosting anodyne forums and shutting down fan sites that abuse their copyright. Apparently 36,678,468 people "like" michaeljackson.com. Like? Like? .com?
I used to run down Mayfair streets looking for his car, memorising numberplates, shouting to friends who didn't own mobiles which way to go so we could cut him off and catch a glimpse of his wide-open eyes behind the famous black silk surgical mask. We brought traffic to a halt, grinning at the drivers raising fists at us, and strutting a little as we tumbled down Oxford Street in a gang, people staring and getting out of our way as we whooped and punched the air, each clutching the hand that had touched him like it was no longer part of us, tingling with pins and needles, a stranger's body part. Now @michaeljackson tweets me every afternoon at 10:00 Pacific time.
Untrue as they were, there was something to those claims of "fake" fandom. We wanted to be part of a bigger thing, a phenomenon, and our presence denoted a greater significance, Michael's indisputable significance. Witnessing him meant that somehow we were important. We stood there to demonstrate our dedication, to ourselves, to everyone, to Michael.
Michael. In the end I didn't stay with him. My dedication was found wanting, and my tenacity and loyalty and depth of love only went so far. He went under, bobbing to the surface from time to time until the final wave. Today is two years since he died.
Some things haven't changed: there is new music, new footage, and everyone who ever met him has a version of him to sell. Fan forums buzz with beliefs and interpretations, new angles on old stories, that old fervour now focussed on new conspiracy theories, creating new factions.
A few days after he died, a friend and I remarked on how unchanged some fans were, that their behaviour hadn’t changed at all. Of course, he had hardly sat in their front room and had tea with them when he was alive - he may as well have been dead, living so far away in Los Angeles - but he was no more. We sat in a bar in Soho thumbing the stems of large glasses of red wine, grieving for someone who for a long time had ceased to exist so vividly in our imagination, and now no longer existed at all.
As a fan I used to wonder idly what he was doing on this earth we shared, where he was, who he was with, what time it was in LA. 10, 9, 9am? I supposed he was eating breakfast. Since he died I found myself asking it again, exploring how I felt when I told myself nothing, nowhere, midnight. Four o'clock. Seven thirty.
Time moves on and that first, arguably most significant, relationship in my life is broken, one half of it swinging in the wind, being dragged onto a Final Cut Pro timeline, graded, normalised and deinterlaced by a Sony video editor.
I can't help thinking those scenes of adulation miss something. Our vocal dedication hid another side, a side that's hard to explain, and impossible to replicate with footage of innumerable screaming fans and endless moonwalks: a close, intense personal feeling for another human being. One that thought wearing a gold leotard and white socks was a good look, but a human being nonetheless.
It wasn't one-sided either. I was one fan in a crowd below his bedroom window, through which we'd glimpse the brim of his hat or the flash of his sunglasses, and out of which he'd throw messages of love and neediness.
He made us feel like we weren't just a publicity vehicle to him. Knowing we were there, he assured us, made him happy, less restless, more contented. He had people come down and film us. When I met him in 2002, his photographer took a picture.
We - I - understood him, and by loving him, spotting and defending his qualities in the face of such hostility, we - I - distinguished myself from everyone else who just saw a freak. I felt special. I was involved in something important, and it started with loving another person intensely. I did it all for him. We loved him, and he loved us back. More.
My photo of Michael at his peak never fails to spark discussion. The plumber asked about it, my friends roll their eyes, and dinner party guests come out of the loo looking confused. It's my thing, see. Weird, huh? Bet you had me pegged.
What I really want though, is a portrait of him taken in 1980.
Here's one. I don't know what it is about this period that seems to sum up so much for me about my love for Michael Jackson. It's a time in his life when he was at his most prolific, his most creative, poised for greatness; he said himself it was when he was at his happiest. It also happens to be the year I was born.
Looking at this I feel his potential, and a dark smudge of sadness, the knowledge of what is to come, his fate. "Show me a hero," Fitzgerald wrote, "and I will write you a tragedy." Well there it is, in that photo. My hero. A glimpse like this is all I need to conjure up all kinds of notions about him, just as I used to wonder what he was doing in his hotel room all those years ago.
I find it curious that thinking about him generates an interest in me and makes me sad in a way nothing else does, nothing real, anyway. It's like his story is a portal into other feelings, real emotions that emanate from real people and events in my life.
He is 21. By now he has sacked his manager, his father Joe. That's Tito behind him.
He's just picked up his first Grammy award - he's probably holding it in his hand right there, out of shot - for Off the Wall. The award was for R&B male vocal performance, and he feels snubbed; disappointed that his album wasn't deemed suitable for Record of the Year. He has vowed his next one will be the biggest selling record of all time (it was Thriller). Perhaps he is doing it now, as he looks at the camera.
His Afro has been clipped short and his hair is now covered with the oil that will set alight during the filming of a commercial in four years' time and leave him with third degree burns and a dependency on painkillers. His skin is a smooth chocolate. His face is wide and handsome, with winged eyebrows framing deep, soulful eyes that look warily with a vulnerable determination. Soon that will flip to a determined vulnerability. His childish charm has given way to extraordinary good looks, and he does not see it. He hates his face so much he washes it in the dark. He has had one nose job.
The spell lasts as long as I look at the picture. I know in reality he experienced a lot of happiness that year: he won many awards, filmed a Disneyland special, welcomed the birth of two nephews, and in the year after that he went on the Triumph tour and wore this hat:
That is an awesome hat.
Clearly I can create a picture of him that is compelling, beautiful, but not the whole story. Being able to tell a single story, knowing him for what he really was, was crucial to me as a fan. I needed to know my version of him was accurate. Troubling accusations that risked my version of who he was sent me into hysteria, a terrified, lip-wobbling fury. I know now other people have different views of him, what he was like, what he was capable of. I know also that my view of him isn't necessarily accurate. No-one's is. His wasn't.
Today there are TV specials and articles about this anniversary, and I am as thrilled as anyone when I see him dance, watch those crowds of fans, and remember what it felt like to be in the front row of Wembley, reaching for an enigma that spun and moonwalked to avoid my grasp.
One of the best descriptions of fandom I've ever read is actually a definition of “aura”, by the German philosopher Walter Benjamin: he calls it "the unique phenomenon of distance, however close an object may be".
That idea of distance and closeness rings true with me. In the last two years Michael has become an icon, revered and distant, his reality as a human being forgotten or pushed under the carpet.
I want to remember that other side of being a fan, that closeness I felt to someone who isn't here anymore. That's hard to admit; it's much easier to describe it as fanaticism, dedication, a religious fervour. But love?
It was never true that we were paid to be fans. None of that was fake. Perhaps we were deluded; but I'd argue those delusions felt as real to us as anything else in our lives. And that's all we can ever really say about each other, isn't it?