The Limits of Vanity

As an early teen in the early ’80s, it was just about impossible not to like Michael Jackson’s music. It was certainly impossible to avoid it. With Thriller, Jackson and producer Quincy Jones set out to make the ultimate crossover album — one that would gain black and white audiences in equal measure. And equal airplay, too, back when radio stations were even more racially-targeted than they are today.

And boy, did they succeed.

But Michael Jackson the person? It was pretty obvious even then that he was one strange dude. What happened though is what happens to too many child performers: The weirdness went up and up, while the quality of the performances went down and down. By the time Dangerous came out in 1991, the magic was pretty much gone. It sold in the millions, yet nobody was buying it. And by that I mean, nobody was buying Jackson’s pseudo tough/tender/ladies man act anymore. The weird was just too weird.

Then came the obligatory-yet-somehow-disappointing greatest hits collection, the horrifying-yet-believable stories about his sleepover parties with kids…

I shudder even to think about it. His last studio album, ironically named Invincible, came out after years of delays and way over budget — and to a tepid response.

It was around this time he was dangling babies off balconies and looking like a bad drag queen version of Elizabeth Taylor. Oh, and he’d somehow managed to go broke buying giraffes and rollercoasters and stuff. The music had hit bottom and the weird was at the top of the charts.

The amazingly talented and abused little boy who never had a childhood, never really had an adulthood, either. There’s so much blame to go around, you barely know where to start.

Anyway, that’s what popped into my head this morning after reading a story about the ongoing wrong death suit against his management. Especially this part:

Much of what jurors heard for the first time is a repeat of the scientific evidence presented in the trial of Murray, who is now serving a prison sentence for involuntary manslaughter. But some of what is in the coroner’s report seems to give more insight into Michael Jackson’s life rather than how he died.

Dr. Christopher Rogers noted in his autopsy report that Jackson’s lips were tattooed pink, while his eyebrows were a dark tattoo. The front of his scalp was also tattooed black, apparently to blend his hairline in with the wigs he wore.

The autopsy confirmed what Jackson told people who questioned why his skin tone became lighter in the 1980s. Jackson had “vitiligo, a skin pigmentation disease,” Rogers said. “So, some areas of the skin appear light and others appear dark.”

Jackson released a song in ’88 called “The Man In The Mirror,” which was one of his minor hits. And the man he saw in the mirror was bald, splotchy, underweight, and dotted above the neck with makeup tattoos. We saw the freak, but he — and his family, and his management, and his doctor — saw the wreck. A forty-year-long, slow-motion, train-derailment-scene-from-The-Fugitive, wreck.

As I settle quite solidly into middle age with all its attendant physical changes, it forces me to wonder what, if any, are the limits of vanity. Multiple plastic surgeries, forehead tattoos, stained lips, starvation, abuse of powerful anesthesia to attain beauty sleep — where does it stop?

We know where it stopped for Michael Jackson: With a panicked, enabling doctor sweating over his withered and lifeless body. And to think Jackson had once been a beautiful — and that is the right word — young man.

Dying tragically and young (if you’ll allow me to repeat myself) is nothing new in the world of popular music — but not like this. Is Jackson merely a reflection of a culture obsessed to death with staying young, or did he create that man-in-the-mirror himself?

It’s been almost exactly four years since his death at the age of 50, and there are still no easy answers; just the uneasy feeling that his weirdness is becoming our new normal.


Cross-posted at PJ Lifestyle