I was a girl of fifteen in 1983 when “Thriller” came out. That event was somewhat eclipsed by my graduation from school, and my new-found very teenaged-emotional religiosity. I was determined to avoid the materialistic, the faddish, the glitzy, the – well, anything too entertaining that might draw me away from spirituality and religion. So “Thriller,” the number one selling album of all time, passed me by. But not unnoticed. Even for someone like me, determined to avert my gaze, “Thriller” still encapsulates much of the era, though my own 80’s era is obviously a mix of the Afghan war, the General Zia regime, and things like “Thriller.” The childhood and very White world of Jaws, the Six Million Dollar Man, and Star Wars I was behind us. And now, with “Thriller,” “What a feeling” and “Maniac,” here was a much more complicated world, a mixed up one, heavier in many ways.
“What is the problem with Michael Jackson?” the Iraqi soldier in the movie “Three Kings” asks Mark Wahlberg. “Your country make him chop up his face!”
Michael Jackson’s many problems, psychological, physical, physiological, personal, have sold thousands and thousands of magazines and news broadcasts. I do not intend to speak of them here. Perhaps because now it’s too late to ask “What is the problem with Michael Jackson?” for it to benefit Michael Jackson himself.
But the question poignantly sums up a whole litany of questions. Why is humanity so fragile? Why do the twisted and the angelic lie so close to each other? Why is the world so hard to make sense of?
What is the problem with fame and fortune? Why is talent so often a ticket to disaster?
Why do we cannibalize others’ humanity? Why does our emptiness so greedily feast on Michael Jacksons and Farrah Fawcetts? Why are the MJs even considered irrelevant in terms of the consequences of our cannibalism to them? They are our meals and this is why we buy them, like so many packaged goods off the supermarket shelves.
In 1982, one of my teachers was once speaking critically of the Pakistani diva Noor Jehan – her behavior, her daring artistic style, her flamboyant clothing, her mannerisms. Noor Jehan’s daughter was in my class, and her inward reaction – never made public – made us all uncomfortable. But it’s okay, my teacher said gently, for us to speak of Noor Jehan, since she is after all a public persona.
What are the consequences of our consumption of these public personalities? How do celebrities pay for our appetites? And then, when we are done, we spit in their faces in disgust – weird, twisted, psychotic as they are. Why are they so out of reach and yet so tantalizingly close to us via the big screens inside our living rooms? Why do we know them and yet know nothing of them? They are like the unattainable beloved of Urdu ghazals.
Ishq mujh ko nahin, vehshet hi sahii
Meri vehshet, teri shuhrat hi sahii
(If you will not permit that I am in love, then, fine, I am crazy. But if nothing else, let my craziness serve to become your fame.)
Our admiration and our horror struggle with each other: Why are they so obscenely wealthy? The answer lies in our own consumption of these idols. We consume them, and we pay for our consumption. It is a business exchange and it is based in our own appetites. Like prostitutes in a rough neighborhood, many of these celebrities eventually end up in the gutter, victims of our appetites. Then, of course, we are free to malign them, since – used, abused, and twisted – they are so disgustingly useless to us now.