July 25th 2009

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Articles from this issue:

FOREIGN INVESTMENT: China businesses 'left and right arms of the state'

ENVIRONMENT: Rudd admits failure of global climate talks

HOMELESSNESS: Families forced to brave the streets

RUSSIA: Moscow unrepentant about Stalin era

CHINA: China unrest a symptom of a diseased system

OPINION: Michael Jackson and popular culture

BOOK REVIEW: D-DAY: The Battle for Normandy, by Antony Beevor

CANBERRA OBSERVED: What Australia can learn from China's behaviour

BANKING: Six economists renew call for a 'people's bank'

GLOBAL FINANCIAL CRISIS: Rebuilding a functioning financial system

FISHING INDUSTRY: Coral Sea marine protected areas: our gift to Asian fishermen

EDUCATION: The war against home-schooling our children

VICTORIA: Religious freedom under threat

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Aboriginal disadvantage: more than question of money

AS THE WORLD TURNS: Just some French youths

BOOK REVIEW: THE DARWIN MYTH: The Life and Lies of Charles Darwin, by Benjamin Wiker

EDITORIAL: The Middle Kingdom sends us a message ...

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Michael Jackson and popular culture

by Peter Westmore

News Weekly, July 25, 2009
The incredible hype surrounding the death of pop icon Michael Jackson is more revealing for what it says about the power of popular culture and the media than the talents of the man widely described as the King of Pop.

I accept the widely expressed view that Michael Jackson was a talented entertainer. His weird costumes, suggestive and riveting choreography, falsetto voice and catchy (if largely meaningless) lyrics attracted a huge following among many of those aged between 15 and 40.

Having said all this, there is no way he should be considered an example to his millions of devoted followers, or a model whose conduct should be emulated. Yet this is exactly the role which our society and the media created for him, in death as much as in life.

Extreme immaturity

As one American observer Bob Herbert noted, the era of Michael-mania was one of extreme immaturity and grotesque irresponsibility. He said: "The craziness played out on a shockingly broad front, and Jackson's life, among many others, would prove to be a shining and ultimately tragic example."

Even the lyrics of his songs, often replete with self-hatred, contain direct references to the darker side of his own existence. A song titled Morphine contains numerous references to taking this drug as well as demerol, the hospital-strength sedative similar to the drug blamed for his sudden death.

It was, of course, difficult to make out the words of his songs, but they are available for download from literally hundreds of websites worldwide.

At the time of his death, Jackson was reportedly taking a cocktail of drugs, showing that despite his phenomenal wealth, he was psychologically if not physically addicted. What is most extraordinary about this is that a number of medical practitioners were apparently involved in the supply of prescription drugs to him.

Everything about Michael Jackson was strange and unreal, from the plastic surgery which sharpened his Afro nose, to the mysterious way his skin turned white (Jackson blamed a disease called vitiligo, but nothing he said can be taken at face value), to his androgynous features which included lipstick, eye make-up and plucked eyebrows, and his bizarre marriage to Debbie Rowe.

Ms Rowe gave an extraordinary insight into her married life in a recent interview with Britain's News of the World newspaper.

In it, she said the two children she had while married to Jackson were not his, but rather were the product of artificial insemination. The mother of the third child in Jackson's household has not been revealed, and it is not known if Jackson was the child's father.

Ms Rowe claimed that their nuptials were a sham, to make it look as if Jackson had a "real family". The recent pictures of Jackson and "his" children were as well choreographed as his performances on stage.

Yet his own conduct shows that he was utterly unfit to be the children's father, just as she was unfit to be their mother.

After telling News of the World that she had "moved on" and never expected to see her children again, Ms Rowe has since announced that she will be applying for custody of the children who will undoubtedly have a large share of Jackson's estate... The soap opera continues.

Michael Jackson's relationship with his father was as bizarre as that with his children. He claimed to have been repeatedly physically abused by his father.

In turn, Michael Jackson was repeatedly accused of paedophilia, and having inappropriate relations with young boys. In a number of these cases, Jackson paid large financial settlements to the families of these boys; in the one case where he was charged, he was found not guilty.

These allegations were linked to Neverland, where Jackson lived for about 15 years. The Californian ranch had been purchased by Jackson in 1988. He named it after the fantasy island in J.M Barrie's story of Peter Pan, a boy who never grew up.

Some people have said that this is a metaphor for Michael Jackson himself, but this is to deny reality. He did grow up, but what he became was a self-indulgent and self-obsessed recluse whose personal appearances were all carefully stage-managed for his adoring fans with the willing co-operation of the mass media.

It was a sad commentary that this talented yet fatally flawed figure, who had such an influence on popular culture, was exalted at his funeral where he was described as "the greatest entertainer ever", and praised by US President Barack Obama.

Thanks to the internet and the power of the music industry in popular culture, Michael Jackson's legacy will be around for years, beginning with his funeral service.

The King of Pop may have died, but the Michael Jackson industry is alive and well.

As Shakespeare memorably said through one of his most famous characters, "The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones."

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