Friday, July 10, 2009

Mania and Madness; Living and Dying in the Public Eye

I love Michael Jackson!

Well, no actually I don't.

But I have admired Michael Jackson as an entertainer for many years. He was an extrordinarily gifted performer and few would doubt that he deserved his title as King of Pop. I always turn the radio up when I hear Jacko because the addictive beat of his music is guaranteed to get my feet tapping and put me in a good mood. I'm saddened though at his death which is a huge loss, not only to the music world, but to his family, to those who knew the real Michael Jackson and above all to his three small children. Nevertheless, despite all of his redeeming qualities, I still don't love him.

However, his death has set me thinking about the mania that often accompanies celebrity deaths and indeed, celebrity lives. In a sense, one can understand the out pouring of grief that occurs when someone who has had enormous influence dies, particularly in tragic circumstances. The remarkable phenomenon of the huge numbers of people who turned up at Princess Diana's funeral and who covered the roads with flowers was a spontaneous and moving gesture for a beautiful and warm hearted woman who died long before she had finished making her mark upon the world. Indeed, some might argue it was only fitting for someone who had, like Jacko, lived and died in the public eye.

But I guess while I can put floral tributes and eloquent eulogies down to empathy and respect, I can't help feeling a little uncomfortable when I read that as many as twelve people have committed suicide in the aftermath of Michael Jackson's death. Of course, there may have been other mitigating factors but nevertheless it's a worrying situation when people who are essentially complete strangers to Michael take the loss so personally they feel compelled to take their own lives.

But let me digress for a moment with a little story.

Many years ago I went on a trip organized by our parish church to witness a mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II on his first visit to the British Isles. I was still a teenager then and having been raised as a Catholic I often spent time thinking about religion. I suppose in amongst the more obvious dramas of youth I was seeking to understand and assert my own view upon the world. Undoubtedly, I was also curious to see the man who was leader of the Catholic Church and so when the chance came to attend such a momentus occasion, I welcomed it with open arms.

My memories of that day are still quite distinct. As you can imagine, hordes of people (over 350,000) were expected to attend the mass which was to be held in the grounds of Coventry Airport. We travelled through the night and reached our destination in the early hours of the morning. A section of a major highway had been closed to provide the required parking facilities and eventually we were allocated a space amongst hundreds of other coaches. Eager to stretch our legs and join the other pilgrims we disembarked and made our up the side of road towards the airfield.

The road followed the path of several small inclines and as I walked amongst the crowd I could see thousands and thousands of people climbing the hills before me. The dawn was breaking and slithers of red and gold were creeping across the sky. It was how one might sentimentally imagine the parting of the Red Sea or the Exodus of the Israelites. It was beautiful, inspirational and completely unforgettable.

When my companions and I reached the airfield we were allocated a roped off area in which we were to organize ourselves. There was a real sense of expectation and comradeship. All around me people were chatting politely to strangers, dozing in makeshift chairs, lying on blankets or sharing picnics. The time passed slowly but pleasantly but it was not until the sun was high in the sky that the atmosphere began to change and the crowd began to stir as the hour of the pope's arrival approached. The air of excitement grew stronger when he finally appeared and he began to move through the crowds towards the altar.

I think it was at this point that I began to lose that comfortable feeling of being "one of the crowd." Instead, I began to feel like an observer.

Because over the background noise and the excited murmuring I could hear voices crying;

"We love you John Paul! We love you!"

This ebullient behaviour made me feel rather uneasy.

And I felt very much the same way when I was listening to the radio recently. Because what I heard went something like this;

"I love you Michael Jackson! I thought you were immortal, I thought you would live forever!"

Now perhaps these individuals did love the pope and Michael Jackson - because despite my cynicism I believe there are many degrees of love. But I guess there's also a sceptic in me which rises to the surface when I hear such loud vocal declarations. Yes, I know on most occasions "love" is used as an euphemism for "I like it a lot" but when it comes to it as expression of intimacy between two people I guess I'm essentially quite reserved when I think such words are not to be spoken lightly or brandished about. Even back in 1982 when I was still a girl hearing people shout "I love you John Paul!" seemed wholly inappropriate. And as I stood there listening I began to imagine what it might have been like if the pope wasn't the pope but Hitler or Mussolini. I began to wonder too about the causes and effects of mass hysteria.

So with the current furore over Michael Jackson's death uppermost in my mind I can't help but wonder about the suicidal behaviour of some fans. Are their actions done in a moment of temporary madness caused by mass hysteria or has the Cult of Celebrity replaced religion as some kind of belief that some people need to make sense of their lives? Is Tom Cruise now more important than Jesus Christ and Sarah Jessica Parker more important than the Virgin Mary? It seems to me that as people have turned away from traditional religions we have replaced them with new idols; money, materialism and celebrity.

Religion is a sensitive issue and I don't really want to be drawn into a battle of the pros and cons. I will only say that I believe that when religion is adopted by healthy, questioning minds it is force for good. When it is accepted without question, dictated and followed blindly I believe it can be a force for concern. But maybe it is not religion itself which causes harm but the individuals who wish to use it to further their own ends.

But as the western world steers away from the old religions, I grow increasingly concerned at the devotion to the new religions and how they dominate our lives to such an extent that people will now commit suicide when a pop star dies.

Now I'm sure I can't be the only one who is tired of seeing pages of discussion dedicated to what handbag Victoria Beckham is carrying or which fashion designer Paris Hilton favours. Indeed, I have no interest whatsoever, although I'm sure many fashion conscious ladies do. Now that's fine because what Victoria wears or Paris promotes is merely tittle tattle that fills pages of glossy magazines. What concerns me more is the ceaseless prying into celebrities' private lives, the poking around in their rubbish, the cameras in their faces, the outright lies in newspapers. It's unpleasant, undignified and indicative of a society that has no shame.

Now while I'm sure there are celebrities who court attention, I'm sure there are just as many, if not more, that don't. Let's not forget that for many their fame is actually a consequence of their job, perhaps as an actor, musician or indeed politician. But whoever they are when they close their door at night, or go on holiday with their family or dine out with friends it is their basic human right to retain their privacy.

Imagine what it would be like if you were the victim of the unwanted harassment some celebrities endure? Maybe you'd end up pursued by manic press photographers and dead at 37 like Princess Diana or not knowing who the hell you are and dead at 50 like Michael Jackson.

The question is how much are we all guilty of letting these obsessions spiral out of control. Is the media more responsible than the masses or is it ultimately the people who buy tabloid newspapers and magazines like Hello and Okay? There's probably a degree of both but I do feel the press should have more regulation, either by law or self regulation. In the UK the press have shown a little more self control since Diana's death, especially when it comes to reporting of the younger Royals, but when they want to hound someone they still go about it an unpleasant and vitriolic manner. It's no wonder then that some celebrities lash out at photographers when the papers are full of unflattering photos, fictitious stories and just downright rubbish.

But what about the even more excessive attention paid by the press to the bigger celebrities like Michael Jackson? These poor people are built up to be someone almost god like, so important, so influential that at concerts people will stampede over each other to get a better glimpse of their latest idol, stalk them in their homes and pay ridiculous amounts of money to see them in concert. Maybe it's no wonder Michael Jackson was always trying to change his identity. Maybe his facial changes were less to do with issues of race but a bizarre attempt to to hide the man inside from prying eyes. Or perhaps he just went mad with it all. Who knows.

I suppose ultimately I believe it is that unhealthy to put celebrity lives and riches under the microscope to the extent that we currently allow. It's not pleasant for the victim and it also encourages foolish young people to think celebrity is what they should aspire to. You only have to watch reality TV shows to see that many young people are caught up in the Cult of Celebrity. I think it's rather sad when young girls no longer aspire to get a pony or become a nurse but aspire to get silicon implants and become a footballer's wife.

So where will all this madness end? I just don't know and I really don't have any answers. But I suspect that before long they maybe a few more deaths.

In the meantime, I guess it would help if we all remembered that man is mortal, god is immortal and Michael Jackson was probably just a pretty nice guy with a talent for making music.

Sunset photograph courtesy of psoup on Flickr


  1. I think mob hysteria is always scary, even in a supposedly positive situation. It's scary because people seem to give up their individuality so easily and become so totally ready to suspend their judgement. Then again, I assume that in our primitive days, it helped when a crowd could meld and think as one (and the ones who didn't probably organized these others?)
    Regarding the Cult of Celebrity, well, even now, seems to me that those celebrities who have substance, ( who are not afraid of themselves?)still manage to keep their private lives fairly private.

  2. Well written Jane..your post triggered some feelings in me regarding 'mass hysteria'.
    It's the same energy that feeds
    nationalism as you cited regarding
    politics and religion. It was supremely disconcerting to me in the lead up to the Iraq war in this country as people drove around by the thousands with little American flags fluttering madly from their automobile antennae. All I could think of was Hitler's Germany..a sort of jackboot lockstep mentality..unquestioning and surreal. I wanted to leave the country for a while.
    Once I was at a football of the few I've attended
    because I have difficulty with large crowds and there was a phenomena called the 'wave' at this stadium.. The crowd would get up and throw up their arms and roar but only a few rows at a time..the previous rows sitting down as the next arose. to picture this 'en masse' from a would see a pulsing wave of humanity rippling around the ovoid stadium..a visual that was quite stunning but to be amidst it was once again to confront the power of a crowd dynamic. Powerful yet dangerous when out of control.
    Btw..I studied to be an altar boy...ha!
    Keep up the good work..I've been very busy with my business for the last 5 motnhs and haven't had time to catch up much...cheers eddie

  3. Jane . I liked what I read here . With the kind ofpublic scrutny celebrities live under its a wonder that they are able to preserve their sanity . I read somewhere that MJ had an unhappy childhood in the sense that there wasnt much of a childhood - I wonder now , was he trying to erase that young Michael in the welter of faces he creaed for himself ?

  4. Sue,

    That's an interesting point you make about primitive societies - I can see that "thinking as one" would certainly have been beneficial for the hunter gatherers. Maybe society has evolved too fast in the last few hundred years and so we still have the capacity to act in a more primitive way when, in fact, it might be better that we didn't.

  5. Eddie,

    Yes, I think you are correct about it being the same mentality that feeds nationalism. Here in the UK any take on nationalism is pretty much frowned up. You will see flags flying and car stickers for perhaps something like the World Cup but that's about it. (And even then there is so much discussion on the radio etc about jingoism and the offence to minorities etc, etc,that you have to be really thick skinned.) I've never seen flags etc flying etc in supposrt of the Iraq war and I don't remember any during the Falklands war either - and that was more clear cut. I think there is generally a healthy scepticism in the UK about any type of conflict - although in fairness that scepticism is not carried forward to a dislike of the armed forces who are always held in high regard.

    I've also experienced the "Wave" effect - although on a much smaller scale - at a cricket match. And frankly as such behaviour is ,as we say in England, "just not cricket" it was a pretty damp squib! However, I understand exactly what you mean - the compulsion to do something that actually really have the desire to do can be frightening, especially in more extreme situations.

    I have two brothers who were altar boys - one of them threw up on the altar once:) Ah, those were the days......

    Pretty busy eh? A lot of folks are at the moment, just keep that camera at your side so you don't miss any photo opportunties. (Well perhaps not if you're a gynaecologist.)

  6. Mrs G,

    Yes, I often wonder that - how do you keep sane when the press is ripping you to shreds every day? I've a lot of admiration for the Duchess of York who endured years of abuse and still managed to rise above it. She's got real strength of character.

    I don't think anyone will ever get to the bottom of Michael's reasoning behind his plastic surgery. But I guess from all the other evidence his childhood (or lack of it) had a profound and lasting effect on him:(

  7. Impressive.

    I finally came back from the wilderness of my own mind (or rather, my own blogs) to this lovely spot, which I thought was barren, only to discover an absolutely wonderful thought provoking post.

    Haven't read one of those in a very long time (at least one that didn't have an hint of sarcasm to it).


  8. Why thanks Georgie,

    I'm delighted you liked the post - every once in a while I get the urge to write something sensible:)

    I've been a little busy with the family things - the school holidays start soon too, so my reading and writing will be a little unpredictable over the next few weeks. By the time the boys return in September I'll be like a tightly coiled spring full of writing impulses!

    Thanks again:)

  9. It's pure madness, isn't it? For all I know Micheal Jackson might never have lived. He could be more plastic than we read about, because I've never seen him. and neither have half the nutters that are running round the streets shouting 'Michael I love you!' and slaying their youngest child as a sacrafice to the God of celebrities. Have we all forgot that he beat two rap charges and God knows how many out of court settlements for fiddling with kids?
    It's worse than the Jade fiasco. Before she became ill, the public wanted her thrown out the country for being a racist. Then she becomes a martre. Pure and utter nonsense.

    I mean, if Alan Shearer had broken his finger nail, then I could warrant some hysteria, but Jacko? Never!

  10. Gary,

    Ah yes, the Jade fiasco. That episode was also part of the background thinking to this post. I think the success of reality stars just goes to prove how manipulative the media can be - because there's no doubt that 99% of reality stars wouldn't become famous without their help - they would just fade away into obscurity without any genuine talent. One reads in the press that the public "took Jade to their hearts" - perhaps it was more a case of they (the media) foresaw her as headline fodder because she wasn't educated enough to avoid the pitfalls? They must have sold a lot of papers on the back of her rise and fall, and ultimately her death.

    In Jade's defence though she was kinda natural, even if you didn't like her. I can imagine her going in for BB for "a larf" rather than any pretensions of becoming a WAG.

    I don't know what to the think about the MJ accusations - the court says he was innocent in the one case but paying folks off doesn't look good. But then again, there are some blood sucking leeches out there who would do anything for money - so if he had gone to court knowing they would do or say anything then he would have been found guilty whether he was innocent or not - by at least paying them off there will always be doubts as to the legitimacy of their claims rather than a "proven" verdict. It works both ways - some would say you wouldn't pay off someone if you were guilty but, on the other hand, if your child was molested would you accept an out of court of settlement? Or would you want to bring them down no matter what the cost? Would you rather have an abuser locked up or take the money (or possible both?) or let him walk free? Hmm.

    Alan Shearer? - You're showing your age Gary!!!

  11. future Newcastle manager, it's still modern times!-just!


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