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. 


meanestgene said...

i never knew of MJ to be a robot...now i know!