I’ve been thinking about Michael Jackson a lot this week. This is hardly surprising given the massive media coverage and that, well, everyone is talking about it. Within hours of the news breaking, the inevitable jokes were already doing the rounds. Generally, I’ve got a (probably quite inappropriate) weakness for dark humour. However, on this occasion, I was struck by it all being quite sad.
The bare bones of the matter are that one of the most outrageously talented performers of our times had collapsed and died. The reports in the London free papers, which I’ll admit to ploughing through, give and account of Jackson, half-starved, driven to madness and drug-addiction, facing a schedule of performances simply beyond him, just not being able to cope any more.
All this goes far deeper. That Michael Jackson was abused as a child is common knowledge. This was someone crushed by the weight of his troubled childhood, by the pressure of his work, who suffered both physical and mental collapse.
Over the past week I have had dozens of conversations with people who were struck by his death and felt real sympathy for someone who found the world too much for him.
What is interesting is the idea that capital never really stops treating people like animals. Even society’s biggest “stars” are simply the thoroughbred horses. For sure they are fed well and live lives of extraordinary wealth, but they’re still shunted around and put to work, with little thought for their well-being.
There is also much to be said about the racial politics of Jackson’s life. Yes, he was a pioneering and groundbreaking black artist. But to my mind he strove to achieve an ideal of “beauty” that was racist, utterly “white”, and ended up butchering his own face.
At the time a few years ago when the child sex scandal was really big news. I was still at school. Many black classmates took a position of unconditional defence of Jackson; friends who would have been pretty virulent against anyone else facing similar charges put him beyond criticism. As with other conspiracy theories, I severely doubt it, but it’s not uncommon for people to talk about the whole thing as some sort of racist plot to destroy him.
We are socialists, we want to build a society where children, however talented, are allowed to grow and develop at their own pace, where no one grows to hate themselves, the colour and shape of their face. Those with the sort of problems of mental health Michael Jackson clearly had will be supported and given help.
Jackson’s stardom, and more importantly, the fact that there was money to be made from him, meant no one ever tackled his mental illness. Besides, the “care” most people receive in capitalist society amounts to little more than being imprisoned and pumped full of drugs.
What we say I think goes beyond that. This system is “mad” and sends us all mad; it’s largely the extent to which people have support, friendships and strength to deal with society that varies. It will continue to do so if it is not smashed and replaced by a society based on solidarity and mutual assistance.
At the end of the day, thinking about Michael Jackson should not leave us despairing of the state of the world. Yes, large parts his life seems to have been a tortured wreckage, but what he created, what he will be remembered for, the reason it meant something to so many people to find out he’d died, was that he made great music.
For millions, music is their one release from the strains of life. On a Friday or Saturday night, it is the one time in the week where people are emancipated, set free.
There might not be anyone who can claim to have made so many lives that much more bearable. Sitting in a hot office is not so bad when you’ve had Michael Jackson on the radio all week. As I walked home, past the bus garage, in the shops, his music is playing, putting a spring in people’s steps.
Clearly the struggle to liberate ourselves from the system that makes slaves of us will take a lot more than stolen moments of enjoyment. Music is not a substitute for workers organising, educating themselves, making solidarity and fighting.
However, our socialism is based on a spirit of optimism, freedom and life. You could do a lot worse than listen to some Michael Jackson for a bit of that. It’s a start.