Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Life in the Valley: Michael Jackson, King of the Undead

Since his 1964 debut as a member of the family R&B act The Jackson Five, Michael Jackson has established himself as a fixture in international popular culture. His solo career, opening with a major success in 1979’s Off the Wall album, has spanned nearly thirty years of music. His fame reached its height from the early 1980s through the mid-1990s, during which time he was a significant musical, cultural and economic force. The intensity of his media exposure through tabloid press has, over the last fifteen years, transformed Jackson into a public spectacle. The combination of Michael Jackson’s progressively anti-social behavior, legal problems, obvious eccentricities and hyper-real elements inherent to the genre of tabloid magazines has effectively transformed him into something less than human, an object. This objectification has made it publically permissible to treat him as less than human, stripping him of privacy, consideration, and respect typically seen as inherently deserved by all people. Michael Jackson serves as an excellent example of the dehumanization of celebrities by tabloid magazines given the height of his success and the level of criticism and public scrutiny he has been subjected to over the years.

In the early 1970s a theory was proposed by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori to explain why, in many cases, as a robot becomes more human-like in appearance or quality the human reaction to the robot becomes more positive, until such a point that a robot becomes unsettlingly inhuman where positive reaction suddenly drops off and becomes negative until such a point that the robot becomes indistinguishable from a human. When given numeric value, and charted on a graph, that representative space where human similarity is most resented, and given to negative response is called the uncanny valley. (MacDorman, Minato)  The idea of the uncanny valley has been adopted beyond the field of robotics to explain human attachment or aversion to artificial representations of human beings in a virtual environment. Viewed broadly in the context of the hyper-real virtual environment of tabloid magazines it is possible to draw a correlation between the commoditization and objectification of celebrities and the public acceptance of their mistreatment, exploitation and ridicule when examined as a real world manifestation of the uncanny valley.

In a hyper-real environment in which images or symbols achieve a level of importance or cultural tangibility greater than the original subject, it is possible for the actual identity of a person to become subordinate to the characterization presented in images and text. The print medium itself alters the tactile relationship between the humans involved: the ability to open and close a page or to completely abandon an article. It gives the reader the ability to control a representation of another human whose social standing likely outstrips their own. The ability to control and view a celebrity as an uninvited voyeur facilitates the process of objectification and defies normal social barriers. In this regard, the reader is imbued with a sort of omniscience in relation to the life and activities of the celebrity which acts as a limited form of pseudo-deification through the elimination of real class, social and physical threshholds within the liminoid space occupied by both the reader and the representation.

The characterization of the subject, whether viewed positively or negatively in light of the media coverage can determine which way the subject is moved along the slope of the uncanny valley. Assuming that all humans start off being considered human, the negative or positive elements of media coverage can make them seem either less than human or more human than humanly possible. In both circumstances, the subject is no longer considered a participant in the human experience. The end product of the tabloid magazine is designed to make it easy for the reader to forget the chain of events and production decisions that change a flesh and blood human being into an ink and paper publication on a supermarket rack. The process is not subtle, in fact Us Weekly magazine acknowledges this transformation when it reminds its readers every issue of the humanity of its subjects with its segment Just Like Us, featuring pictures of notable persons taking out the garbage or carrying groceries. In a sense, the public chooses to forget that soylent green is people… as advertised.

Placing the rise and fall of Michael Jackson’s career and persona on the slope of the uncanny valley, one can visually represent the process of dehumanization that occurs in tabloid press and the media at large. During the height of his career in the 1980s, he was propelled to superhuman status, complete with personal theme park. During that period his persona was virtually unassailable. With the rise of his legal troubles relating to child-molestation and financial problems, coupled with his apparent obsession with plastic-surgery, he was easily pushed backwards along the slope of the uncanny valley into the realm of sub-humanity. Because of negative tabloid coverage and his obvious physical changes, it is easy to imagine Michael Jackson as a freak of modern medicine, prowling for virginal young boys in his personal hunting reserve of roller-coasters, exotic animals and cotton candy. It is easier still to forget that he is a troubled human being. Putting aside Jackon’s celebrity status and the allegations of child-abuse, the tabloid’s exploitative media coverage of his changing physical appearance, whether due to vitiligo or cosmetic surgery addiction or what have you, it would be disgusting outside of the permissive environment of celebrity gossip. The ability to unrepentantly attack Jackson’s strange appearance facilitates the tabloid process of separating him from the human experience.

Tabloid magazines are ultimately propelled by their profit margins, the level of sensationalism or degree of personal violation is irrelevant in the face of the raw economics. The tabloids are selling their magazines, their ad space, the distorted representations of celebrities, but most importantly they are selling their own tabloid culture. This, naturally, brings us back to Us Weekly’s Just Like Us Feature, the implication being that if they are just like us, then we are just like them and therefore it is possible transcend our social origins and join the ranks of the supposedly revered. In his book Hello I’m Special: How Individuality Became the New Conformity author Hal Niedzviecki describes the mass desire to become famous, “More and more people want to be special and noticed, and we want to create bigger, and better narratives, but our approach is to imitate established practices.”(Niedzviecki, 8) When the corporate entities responsible for this recognition of celebrity humanity publish Just Like Us they are not reminding us of how these representations are human; they are baiting a snare to snatch away our humanity. The dishonesty is found in the misdirection, “they” are just like “us”, so if “we” act like “them” then we can be famous too. The tabloid pitch is not a complete lie; inevitably new celebrities do rise from the masses, and that’s just fresh meat for the media grinder. Chuck Klosterman documents the intense personal toll of “living like a rock star” over a period of just 21 days in his book Killing Yourself to Live. He ruined entire portions of his life emulating the tabloid caricatures, and he didn’t even have the paparazzi egging him on and documenting his shortcomings. Even those who don’t become celebrities will strive to be like them, act like them and consume like them. Clothing, cars, makeup, haircuts these are the things the tabloids tell the public that separate “us” from “them” because it is certainly not taking out the garbage, everyone takes out the garbage. In that regard, celebrities are not the only victims of the tabloid magazines industry’s dehumanizing tactics, the general population suffers too. Celebrities are just bait in a trap at the bottom of the uncanny valley, tempting us to teeter on the precipice of what it means to be human and what it means to be humane to one another.

In the public eye, Michael Jackson has become a macabre curiosity. I find it ironic that the music video that propelled Michael Jackson to superstar status, Thriller, ultimately served as an omen of his fate. He has effectively, over the years, through poor personal choices and rabidly aggressive tabloid coverage become an inhuman creature, singing and dancing at the forefront of a pack of hopeful young celebrities and would-be celebrities falling to pieces under the pressure of popular culture’s most vicious manifestation: waiting room reading fodder. 

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Seeing Red

Like every great noir mystery my story starts in a smoky hotel room, the sheets are rumpled and a single lamp lights the space from a cluttered desk. Only the room isn’t smoky, and the lamp isn’t on. There is no red-lipped seductress. It’s just that, for the sake of a good mystery, you really should include things like that: noir things. It wasn’t raining, I’m not even sure if it was cloudy. To say that it started in a dark hotel room on a clear autumn night would be okay, but lying in bed with a beautiful woman is more scintillating a start than lying in bed with itchy feet. Oh how they itched, taunting me. I’m a natural born hypochondriac, so my first thought is that I’ve somehow contracted athlete’s foot from walking around barefoot in my discount hotel room. I lie there, rubbing the heel of one foot over the toes of the other, scratching, wondering, building a case for flesh eating bacteria, for leprosy. The muscle relaxers kick in and I fall asleep.


The next morning I wake up, prepared to pee on my feet. That’s what you’re supposed to do when you have athlete’s foot, you’re supposed to pee on yourself. I have no idea if it cures leprosy, but I’m in the business of not taking chances, so I attack with the tools at hand. Years of conditioning fly out the window and I’m angling a stream of hot urine at my little piggies. I’m standing there, trying to get the angle right when I notice the spots on top of my feet, it isn’t athlete’s foot. I’ve peed all over myself for nothing. I rinse the piss off and step out of the shower, standing in front of the mirror I can see the rash, running across my shoulders in pink speckles and climbing the sides of my neck. My cheeks are flushed, and I know the rash is there too. At least I didn’t pee on my face.


Ideally, I’d have recognized the symptoms of an allergic reaction the night before, when I was in bed cycling through my overdeveloped mental medical dictionary trying to diagnose my ailment. Ideally, I would have brought the allergy medication with me that the doctor had prescribed when I got hives three weeks before. Instead, my allergic reaction has had a full night to spread and I’m almost three hours away from my Benadryl caplets. So I pack up and head out, wave goodbye to Hagerstown Maryland, a town which can only be described as a strip mall with gray human landfill growing out of its ass-end. I get as far as Harrisburg before I realize that I need instantaneous medication, the rash has spread over my whole face and its bright red and burning. Not quite noir lipstick red, but definitely sunburn red. I pulled into a gas station and made haste to the medical rack, purchased an antihistamine, filled the tank, and pondered the lotto. Fuck the lotto.


I got home, took another pill, ate lunch, drank a beer and went to sleep.


So what am I allergic to? I’m not sure yet, but that soft-shell crab is a likely culprit. Apples are also in the mix. I can probably live without shellfish, but what if its regular fish too? Tuna? There goes the neighborhood. My first hive breakout came at the tail-end of an anti-biotic regimen. Honestly, I preferred the idea of being allergic to the lifesaving medicine.

Thursday, October 2, 2008


Thanks to Monica and Alejandra for their contributions to the evening.

My debate live-blogging buddy. She showed up late, but she demanded beer. I understood.

My not-watching-the-debate live-blogging the buddy

Live Blogging the Vice Presidential Debate

Alright, for those of you who don't know... as if anyone typically reads this... I'm going to be live blogging the Vice Presidential debate tonight. If you want to comment, chat or get a hold of me, then here are the approved methods of communication...

AIM: Renaissance Oz
MSN: ozrael@yahoo.com
Gmail: ryan.placchetti-at-gmail.com

Let that blogging begin.


8:46pm: We are t-minus fifteen minutes and I'm running to the store to score some antacids. I'm foregoing the prescription muscle relaxers tonight on account of the fact that I'm planning to provide top-notch political commentary... or crack jokes. Either way, I want to be on my game as I slide toward the blurry abyss of inebriation. Of course, maybe when you look into the blurry abyss, the blurry abyss looks into you. Ask John McCain.


9:02pm: Turned to WHYY Philadelphia public television. They're still working the pregame. Now they're introducing, and I could give a crap.


9:13pm: "Can I call you Joe?" she asks... can I call you Joe? 

Economic crisis

Joe opens with typical thanks to venue, all that shit. Appeals to the middle class, doesn't threaten to shoot his running mate. Good start.

Sarah is a little weaker, she talks a little bit about children's soccer games. Kisses John McCains ass and talks up McCains approach to the economic crisis... which, aside from suspending his campaign, is exactly the same as Barack Obama's.

Joe goes on the attack and points out McCain's inconsistent response to the crisis.

Sara rebukes him pretty soundly, but left herself open to some pretty obvious slap downs. Her attack of Obama's record of voting 96% on party lines begs to be countered with McCain's record of voting 95% with George Bush. Her analysis of the economic crisis is over simplified and she does a lot of sweetly put rebuking of the financial fat cats. She's not really offering any sort of solution or insight.


9:15pm: Joe had a swift counter of Sara's attack on Obama's tax raising record by claiming that McCain raised taxes in the same vote.  

Sara touted her mayoral record of cutting and killing taxes. Who the hell cares? She followed with her record as Governor, but honestly she's in her first term so how much could she REALLY have done?

Joe plays to the middle class again.

Sara calls him out, uses the term "redistribution of wealth" smart move. America hates a Commie. On that note, let's nuke China. We can practice on Cuba.

9:20pm: Joe attacks the redistribution of wealth comment, but doesn't deny it. Not smart, Joe. He almost accused John McCain of being Barack Obama. That could make for a confusing election. If Obama's running mate can't figure out which ticket he's on


9:28pm: New drinking rules posted. Look above. My poison is Victory Brewing Company's Golden Monkey, a Belgian style tripel, wonderful taste and 9.5% alcohol by volume. It's a strong brew, and delicious too.


Global Warming

9:30pm: Sara skirts around it, she can't say that she doesn't believe in Global Warming. Grow some balls. What I want to know is if she believes in dinosaurs. Let's address the important issues. She has a strong history of fighting climate change, blah blah. Other countries did it.

Joe believes in man-made Global Warming, the polar icecap is melting, but the cookie dough icecream is doing dandy. China did it! Joe Biden wants to send the Chinese clean coal technology. You know, whenever someone sends government funded energy technology to China we throw their asses in jail. Joe, don't go that road.

Sara responds, "drill, baby, drill!" that's mature. I like how she quoted Biden there, her use of his use of the word "rape" was a nice follow on to "drill, baby, drill!"


9:35pm: Joe says "John supports everything" there has been no truer statement in this campaign.


Same Sex Marriage

9:36pm: Joe likes gay marriage, implies that he might be hot for Obama.

Sara likes gay marriage unless it means that gay people get married. She uses the word tolerant a lot, nice cover Valerie Plame.

Joe DOES NOT support gay marriage, but thinks they should be able have sex in hospital waiting rooms. He said it.




Iraq, Pakistan and Iran

9:42pm: Joe says no free rides for iraqi asshats. We're giving them a bunch of money, and they're making a bunch of money. Time to cut them off.

Sara points out Bidens own big mouth. Promoted from Captain to Major Obvious.


9:47pm: EVERYBODY DRINK TWICE! Ahmedenijibab!

Sara Palin nucular. Let the legacy of mispronunciation continue.


9:50pm: Sara pounces on the Obama no preconditions policy. I'm actually for it. I don't think sanctions are making anyone warm to us. She brings up the wiping Israel off the face of the Earth quote. I'll find the NPR interview with the official American translator of Ahmedinejabberwocky that correctly translates that statement as "Israel will fade from the pages of history." Big F'ing difference.

Joe brings the pain.  He just schooled Saracuda on the Iranian command structure.


9:55pm: Sara promises that the Republican ticket isn't George Bush. Change is coming, buzz word.

Joe attacks McCain's foreign policy similarities with GW. He wants America to be respected. Machiavelli wants America to be feared. Barack Obama wants a cigarette.


10:00pm: Sara says that counterinsurgency can work in Afghanistan... then why isn't it?


10:02pm: I'd love to set a rule that makes Bosniak a drinkable word... but I don't think it's worth even typing.


10:03pm: SLAM A BEER!

The format for this debate is killing the excitement. I'd like to see these two kids go at eachother's throats.


10:06pm: Monica just got here, a little late.

Joe says that Obama knew from the start but that he was an idiot.


Whatcha gonna do if John McCain keels or some racist blows Obama's brains out?

I don't understand why Biden's administration should be that much different than Obama's.  Joe slips off topic and starts talking about 1932. McCain remembers 1932, he disagrees with Joe's tangent.


10:13pm: Everyone gets extra-credit tonight. I'm emailing my professors.

Sara: "Of course we know what a Vice President does!"

Thank goodness.


10:15pm: Joe Biden has a history of getting things done. He also has a history of staying stupid shit.


Tell me your weakness!

10:18pm: I can answer this for both candidates. "I don't have any weakness." 

Sara has a special needs child? Bullshit. She just had that baby. What special needs does he have? Changing diapers? Boob milk? Come on... babies eat and shit, that's it. Tell me about your special needs child in 10 years.


10:18pm:Joe Biden talks about the death of his wife and daughter. Gets choked up, holds it in. Man rules abided by. I approve.

Drinking game abandoned. This system moves too slow.

For some reason when Sara was talking about how many shots John McCain takes in Washington... I couldn't help but think of porn.

10:27pm: Fuck it, muscle relaxers down the hatch. 

Joe Biden just said the most profoundly compelling thing of the evening I think. He talked about the good intentions of most people who choose to serve their country in congress. I agree whole heartedly.

Sara echoes bipartisanship, and quickly changes topic. It just seemed like a thin response in the wake of that.


Closing statements

10:29pm: I like you Joe. I hate being picked apart by the main stream media. Quote Ronald Reagan... is she running for class President? Wow, that was terrible.

Joe opens up with some excellent weight, speaks to the American people directly and somberly. Amazing, all the way up to the shout out to the troops. 


1035pm: New York Times columnist David Brooks has a very low threshhold of entertainment.

I'm sure on Fox News Sean Hannity is acting like a douche bag. Somewhere, somehow.

The debate was boring, it was safe.

10:55pm: My final conclusion? The first half of the debate was pretty tame, but Biden broke out in the second half and out human-being'd Palin. He hit all the marks with solemness and gravity. A lot of people will say that Sarah Palin won by not getting smeared into the turf, but that's not good enough. I walked into this expecting her to get spanked barring a massive fumble by Biden. So, good job VP candidates for not screwing the pooch tonight. Sara, you didn't ramble incoherently, Joe... you didn't threaten to counter-invade Mexico.

I felt like tonight really just checked some boxes, with the exception of a few standout moments  where Biden broke ahead of the two person pack. The debate format ultimately reigned both candidates in and created a safe zone where neither of them could scuttle their ticket. Yay?