29 June 2009

Overdose of celebrity

Whatever the autopsy findings, in a very real sense, Michael Jackson died of a massive overdose - an overdose of celebrity.

Whatever the autopsy findings, in a very real sense, Michael Jackson died of a massive overdose - an overdose of celebrity.

He has provided an extreme example of the principle risk of excessive fame - a progressive insulation from reality and criticism, leading to increasingly self-destructive and self-defeating behaviour.

It's risky when you get surrounded by people who applaud your every notion, no-matter how silly; when you feel able to do anything, without feeling constrained as other people would. He showed, too, the common problem that as a celebrity's earnings peak, many people profit by encouraging them to spend lavishly, on an entourage far larger than needed, and on buying objects they never have the time to enjoy. And as they pass their peak and their earnings start to decline, the spending has become a habit which nobody else is motivated to discourage.

Denial of death
He died at home. When ambulancemen reached him, his heart was not beating and he was not breathing. That's dead. They understandably tried to resuscitate him, and failed, while taking him to the nearest major hospital.

Once there, because of his celebrity, staff are said to have tried to resuscitate him for a further hour. This absolutely would not have happened had a vagrant or street person been brought in under otherwise clinically identical circumstances, or even for any one of us. As research I published years ago showed, the length and strenuousness of resuscitation attempts is directly proportionate to the celebrity, distinction, wealth and otherwise apparently higher social status of the body, divorced from medical realities.

We were told that his personal doctor was present and tried to resuscitate him when he went into cardiac arrest. The widespread media reports that he died "of cardiac arrest" are misleading. In a very real sense everyone dies of cardiac arrest - when the heart stops and stays stopped, that's death. It's the cause of the cardiac arrest that needs to be clarified.

From praising to preying
We are seeing stage one of a very typical cycle. Right now we get ridiculously lavish adulation and praise; and opportunism. (Does anyone really believe Madonna's quoted statement that she can't stop crying?)

Then there was that defiantly ignorant young woman on TV who insisted that "From today music is dead!" Next will come more sober reassessment, while the dirt-digging goes on, and then there will be more unsavoury revelations and criticism, and eventually we may start to see him in perspective.

Reflex hyperbole
There's been some ludicrous hyperbole. Reverend Al Sharpton, for instance, always quick off the mark when there's a camera around, insisted that MJ was unique as the great black star, long before Tiger Woods.

But sadly, he ignored true black pioneers who became major stars throughout all communities and countries, such as Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, Sammy Davis Junior, Sarah Vaughan, Marion Anderson, and many others, who all made highly significant strides towards well-earned stardom at times when things were really tough for up-and-coming black musicians. And they won break-through gains in civil rights rather greater than encouraging MTV to feature music videos of black singers.

Comparatively, he had it very easy, as there were so many black stars around at the time he arose, as well as major arrangers like Quincy Jones (who brilliantly promoted Jackson) and recording/music executives such as Berry Gordon. He was not a trail-blazer, but followed a well-blazed trail. .

Then Sharpton over-reached himself again, saying that without MJ, there would be no Obama. Such nonsense. I can find no record of any behaviour or statement by which MJ showed any genuine political awareness at any time.

Always the surfer, never the wave
He was very lucky. He was becoming famous just around the time that MTV and similar enterprises started to succeed. These media desperately needed music video material - and, aided by brilliant producers and directors, he made superb video material to feed a new medium that needed exactly this.

Some years earlier, and his videos could not have been widely shown; some years later and they would have been just some among very many. He was a surfer on several such waves, and an accomplished and skilful surfer, but never the originator of the wave.

Instead of growing up, Michael grew down
Whereas most of us grow up, Michael grew down. Over the years he transformed from a young black man into a younger white child. His skin grew lighter and lighter, his nose narrower and more precarious, and his voice became breathy, girlish, high-pitched, and oh-so affected. He chose to wear germ masks, often in stylish black - but they couldn't protect him from what was really going wrong or what actually threatened him. He was initially more cunning and shrewd than most people thought, but then he deceived himself, believed his own myth, and lost all significant touch with reality.

Not nip/tuck; more like slash/burn
He became a monument to truly bad plastic surgery. Surgeons are supposed to be ethical, and, whatever the price offered, they should refuse to perform deforming procedures simply because the client wants them to do so. They should not provide enduring landmarks based on temporary whims. This wasn't so much nip and tuck as slash and burn.

Despite these utterly obvious and increasingly gruesome changes in his appearance, he repeatedly denied having had plastic surgery. His health was hard to assess. There were rumours of hospitalisations for reasons always obscure.

There were rumours of various kinds of drug use, including dependence on prescription medications. This form of dependence usually requires the active assistance of doctors in providing drugs not necessary for health, but to feed the habit, rather than provide assistance in genuine recovery.

The OJ Syndrome
His 2005 trial led to an acquittal on charges of child molestation, by one of those weird California juries which hardly ever convict a celebrity, whatever the evidence. A great many people did not believe or accept the verdict. They did not forget his bland statements about how it was "sweet" to sleep with young boys, and not sexual.

Like OJ, a legal acquittal did not lead to widespread public acquittal. Those who refused, whatever the evidence, to believe he could ever do any wrong, continued to believe in his saintly purity. And those who recognised him as terminally weird, believed he had been up to no good, whatever the verdict. Like OJ, from that point on, he entered a downward spiral, financially, psychologically, and professionally.

Dreading the comeback?
It is likely to be significant that this death came so soon before the start of his comeback appearance, called a "tour" though it would in fact have stayed in one place, and about which he was understandably apprehensive, yet which he desperately needed for financial reasons. Recently there were claims that he suffered from some mysterious rare lung disease and needed a lung transplant, and these were denied. Only last month when the start of his return concerts was delayed, ill-health was denied and was said to be due to a need of extra rehearsal time.

Records, and records
He broke records in the CDs and tickets he sold. He may have made more money in his career than any other entertainer, but wasted almost all of it on vulgar purchases and maintaining a ridiculously lavish life-style, and there are now confident reports that he died $400 million in debt, surely also a record for any singer.

The autopsy and the insurance
Billionaire Philip Anschutz’ concert promotion company AEG Live stands to lose very heavily, as the rapidly sold-out concert series in London can't occur. It is not clear whether AEG managed to obtain insurance on such a possibility, as Jackson's frailty and uncertain health would have made insurers cautious about accepting such a risk. And if there was insurance, the exact cause of death becomes highly important - a policy may be void if there was suicide, or death caused by self-neglect, or even a pre-existing medical condition.

So expect continuing suspense as the test results are awaited, and the inquest arguments follow.

(Professor M.A. Simpson, aka CyberShrink, June 2009)

Read more:
The psychology of celebrity worship


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