We are the only World
Post by request of Mark K-Punk, whose piece on Jackson is far better than any of the innumerable memorials and hand-wringings of the last couple of days. I could have written about the extraordinarily strange mutations and transfigurations of the Moonwalker film, but I'm hoping Alex will do that...
In 1995, there were statues of Michael Jackson being floated up the Thames, to promote the portentously named HIStory - Past, Present and Future Part One. Apparently they were placed in other prominent places around the world at the same time. One wag in a music magazine - I think it was the late Select - wrote that rather than the then self-described 'King of Pop', what we were dealing with here was the Stalin of Pop. Just five years after the statues of Ceaucescu or Dzherzhinsky were falling, Jackson was erecting (presumably fibre glass) colossi of himself everywhere. This was not a new phenomenon. Look at the picture above. What Jackson actually looks like here is some glam version of Tito, or Idi Amin, or Jean-Bedel Bokassa, come to visit the Reagans in order to negotiate the exchange of hostages or the commencement of detente. At the same time he was writing such horrendous outpourings of messianic capitalist realist sentiment as 'We are the World', 'Heal the World' and 'Earth Song', this globe-bestriding colossus was specifically dressing like a totalitarian. In a sense, after he ceased to be the the vividly talented young black man hymned in Mark's post and became an embodiment of the Reagan-era's Integrated Spectacle, he seemed to become weirdly nostalgic for the very Evil Empires Reagan would claim credit for destroying.
This is appropriate, in a weird way, as Gary, the planned rust-belt town where his abusive father was a crane-operator in a steel mill, was taken as a model for the Soviets in their single-industry Fordist industrial new towns such as Magnitogorsk. Long, long after he knew he would never have to enter the steel mills and production lines, the mutation of that world into Stalinism formed a sort of posthumous point of identification for his most haunting post-Thriller song, perhaps the only one that is actually affecting rather than a simulation of affect, 'Stranger in Moscow'. The lyrics here are the usual elliptical mess of tics, paranoia and self-pity you would expect, meaning that the premise is tricky to untangle. Nonetheless, what seems to be happening here is a dream of an outside to the Konsumterror Jackson epitomised - the world of 'actually existing socialism', a cold and severe world without Pop which is also the only imaginable society where nobody would know who he is, where he could actually be a stranger rather than the creature that was, for us born in the '80s, as real a person as Jesus, ET or Santa Claus. Jackson dreams of the world that no longer existed by 1995, the world that he himself had helped to close off - we are the world, there is only one possible world. Yet he can't sustain the fantasy here, either, and it collapses back into the late capitalist media circus, and we know who he is clumsily referring to when he sings 'the KGB are doggin' me'. Yet, in a line which you should remember is sung by someone having statues cast of himself, he trills 'Stalin's tomb won't let me be'. Fittingly at the end, just like Stalin, there seems to have been a Doctor's Plot. In terms of lifelong fame, limitless but profoundly unsatisfying power and presumably endless guilt, the only man who probably knows how Michael Jackson felt near the end is Kim Jong-Il.