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Chris Ford: Michael Jackson - A Capitalist Cultural Icon

Chris Ford
Chris Ford

You maybe wondering as to why I am blogging about the death of Michael Jackson on this political blog? Well, this news story of global proportions will, for politicians the world over, serve as a wonderful (temporary) distraction for the media to concentrate on something else other than the recession. After all, Jackson was the biggest capitalist cultural and entertainment icon of the last 30 years.

Jackson, hailing as he did from the great home of modern showbusiness, the United States, was able to be built up as a trend setter. There is no doubt that he was as his 'Thriller' video was the first video by an African-American to ever be played on the MTV music channel in 1983. This factor alone is remarkable in that it illustrated that even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, there was still a subtle undercurrent of racism that resided within the American media and entertainment industry. But Jackson surmounted those barriers to become a superstar with cross-cultural appeal and this image was built up with the assistance of the powerful and profitable multinational record companies whose public relations efforts went into overdrive to promote Jackson after he began his post-Jackson Five solo career in the early 1980s.

These early publicity efforts paid off not only in the US but around the world as his album 'Thriller' (which my family purchased as well) sold an estimated 50 million copies. Once again Jackson's success proved the dominance of American pop-culture across the globe. Jackson's success was also a sign that the large-scale US-centered globalisation, not only of markets and economies but also of cultural life, was about to reach its apex. Some political commentators call the spread of American cultural values, ideas and of icons like Jackson as being representative of the US policy of projecting 'soft power' to reinforce its 'hard power' (militarist) stance across the planet. Therefore, American cultural icons like pop stars and actors are viewed as just as important in promoting a 'positive and friendly' image of the US across the world in that they make us more accepting of the hegemonic strength and power of the American nation and, hence, less likely to challenge it in the economic, social, political, cultural and military spheres.

What made Jackson unique in this regard was, that unlike Elvis Presley (whose daughter Lisa-Marie he married), his music became popular across the globe in places such as Africa, Asia and the Middle East, places where it was hard for any American, let alone western pop artist, to gain a foothold. By 1984-85, Michael was a global megastar for all these reasons and in an era when free trade between nations was being increasingly promoted by neo-liberals, the breakthrough that Jackson was making into previously largely closed markets for American music (like the Middle East) seemed to prove their arguments.

After that, fame and fortune seemed to get the better of Jackson. His bizarre behaviour (for example, sleeping in an oxygen tent and endless plastic surgery to make his skin bleach white) began to signal the beginning of a long decline which ended in his early death today. Jackson's private life became mere fodder for the world's tabloid media and for non-fans, a large joke. After his 1987 album 'Bad', his career began to go into a tailspin and his meglomania in having huge plastic statues erected of himself to promote his album 'HIStory' in several Asian and European cities where he was to tour in the early 1990s really symbolised that he had gone past his 'use by' date in terms of value to the record companies. At around the same time (in 1994), Jackson faced the first of a series of allegations that he had molested children at his 'Never Land' Ranch, and this was only a foretaste of the trial he faced on child abuse charges during 2005. After that, the Jackson 'brand' soured and with his debts mounting, made his way to live in Bahrain before returning to the US earlier this year.

Still, listening to the tributes today, you would not have realised that had his child abuse trial ended in a guilty verdict, Jackson would have died in total disgrace in a prison cell early this morning New Zealand Time. In fact, America easily makes celebrities out of showbusiness, political and business families. Think of the Trump family in the corporate world, the Jacksons in showbusiness and the Kennedy clan in politics and you get the picture.

If anything his death will be compared in the popular capitalist press as being akin to the deaths at early ages of Princess Diana (who has been overly lauded and glamourised) and of John F. Kennedy too. It will also be compared to the tragic assassination of John Lennon at a young age outside his New York apartment in 1980 (like today and on 9/11, I do remember exactly where I was then too when that story broke too.) However, Lennon's death had a searing impact on the music world and (unlike Jackson) he held progressive political views and was a vocal proponent (along with his strange wife Yoko Ono) of the Vietnam War (and I never saw Jackson raising a picket sign calling for the bombing of women and children in Afghanistan and Iraq to stop either.) Jackson would be just loving this post-mortal adultation as in life, he had a big ego in that he even compared his 2005 child abuse trial acquittal as being on a par with historical events like Nelson Mandela's release from prison and the fall of the Berlin Wall on his website - and those comparisons were a real stretch in themselves!

So today, as I write this, the media is 'paying tribute' to the so called 'King of Pop' the biggest capitalist pop cultural icon of the last 30 years. I believe that without a doubt, the capitalist music machine built him up, stressed him out and killed him at an early age and like Elvis, his record company will now be preparing to cash in on an even bigger wave of post-death popularity.

Capitalist showbiz, like politics, is a funny business that way isn't it?

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