The death of Michael Jackson last week is in some ways a distinctively American tragedy. While there is nothing new under the sun about the soul-crushing effects of fame and fortune, the dynamics involved in the demise of the greatest pop icon of his generation are eerily familiar. Anyone acquainted with the details of the decline and fall of Elvis Presley—who, oddly enough, was posthumous father-in-law to Jacko—knows that both men followed the same basic pattern of descent. Like Presley, Jackson was surrounded by a posse of enablers—people who catered to his whims, including providing him with drugs, while ignoring his declining health, just so they could maintain his approval and, of course, financially benefit. Sadly, the parallels to the Elvis tragedy are many.
American mega-stardom is a soul-eating monster, and it basically works as follows. The star rises to renown because of some talent, such as singing, acting, or athletic ability. As his fame and wealth grow, so do media attention and the onslaught of paparazzi which destroy any privacy the star once had. Along with this there usually come criticisms, rumors, and accusations of various kinds which make the star defensive or even paranoid about his personal safety and perhaps the safety of his family. This prompts the star to form an inner circle of advisors to guard his interests, thus creating the celebrity “ghetto effect”—completely insulating him from the “real world.” At this point he lives in an artificial private world, where all those around do his bidding. At the same time, the star’s accountability for personal behavior is diminished, perhaps even lost, as the inner circle is paid exorbitant amounts of money by the star. Fearing dismissal and a loss of their own fortune, the inner circle becomes a team of “yes” men. What was intended as a protective belt of security for the star is now a lethal nest of parasites, whose success in feeding off their host must eventually destroy him.
This pattern is not reserved for mega-stars, by the way, but seems to apply, to some degree, to anyone who finds himself in a position of power and prestige. Remember that money fuels this machine, so the more money, the more ugly the potential results. The likes of Howard Hughes, Elvis Presley, and, now, Michael Jackson just happen to be the more glaring cases, because of the circumstances of their deaths—tragic neglect despite their many “caretakers.” But as tragic as these stories are, who knows how the moral neglect in these and similar cases has resulted in deaths of an even more tragic nature—the deaths of the souls of the rich and famous.
To what shall we compare celebrity in the American entertainment culture? Celebrity is like a tidal wave that rises in part by its own force but gains most of its strength and momentum by its surroundings. All of these forces which make its crest so impressive also guarantee its disastrous crash.
A while back Amy and I discussed some of the vocations that we envisioned our kids heading into when they become adults. As we shared our thoughts, we found that we had many conflicting intuitions and expectations. Then one of us posed the question, “What profession would you least like to see your son or daughter go into?” Here we easily agreed: Any line of work that encourages self-exaltation and, when successfully done, brings enormous wealth. In short, we just don’t want our kids to have fame and fortune. Some rare celebrities do appear to make it through this “eye of the needle” with their faith and moral compass intact (Bono seems, thus far, to be an example—though at a dear price, I’m sure he would admit). But we would prefer that our kids—or anyone we love, for that matter—not be subjected to the moral-spiritual poisons of celebrity.
As Morrissey once sang, “Fame, fame, fatal fame—it can play hideous tricks on the brain.” Indeed, so does extreme wealth. As we consider the tragic case of Michael Jackson, it would be good for all of us to remember that, for all its macabre circus-like twists and turns, his story is not unique in this crucial sense: He succumbed to the temptations and mind-warping influences of his mega-stardom. And I suspect that the overwhelming majority of the rest of us would do so as well.