Don’t blame it on the Blankie

By Legal Eagle

When I was a little girl (say 2 or 3 years old), my Dad used to sing Don’t Blame it on the Boogie to me, but he refashioned it as “Don’t Blame it on the Blankie“. My security blanket had the very imaginative name of “Blankie”. Apparently I would wail and say, “No-o-o-o-o-o! Don’t blame it on the Blankie. Please don’t blame it on the Blankie!”

So obviously, I’ve known of Michael Jackson for a long time. Yes, he was an incredible dancer and a talented musician. And yes, I feel sad and shocked that he died at only 50. But his death didn’t have the personal resonance for me which it seems to have had for many – the people pictured crying in the streets.

I’ve said before that I don’t really understand the public outpouring of grief for dead celebrities. Certainly, I had crushes on characters in books or movies (mentioned in detail, as I recall, in the speech at my 21st birthday, with the requisite blush-inducing effect).  But I have never felt a personal connection with a celebrity. I suspect I’m unusual in this. I never even had posters of actors, bands or singers up in my room.

There are two issues I want to explore in this post:

  1. The utter hypocrisy of the press with regard to celebrities; and
  2. The phenomenon of “conspicuous compassion”.

The hypocrisy of the press

“Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.”

(Francois de La Rochefoucauld)

First, I was horrified to read some of the schmaltz about Jackson in the press over the last few days. While the man was still breathing, they were happy to hound him and ridicule him. Now he’s dead, suddenly he’s a saint, and his absence will be a great gaping hole in our lives. The hypocrisy of it is breathtaking.

Just like Princess Di, Jackson himself was not entirely blameless, as he had originally propagated some of the rumours which surrounded him. And like Princess Di, I always saw Jackson as a flawed figure, to be pitied rather than admired. In interviews, he comes across as a lonely, damaged and utterly self-obsessed person. The poor man did not have a normal childhood or a chance to develop normal interactions with other people. He was a puer aeternus, desperately trying to recapture his lost boyhood, and more comfortable around children than adults. He even called his ranch “Neverland” in a nod to Peter Pan. And clearly, he loathed his own body and appearance. The problem was – the more he tried to “improve” his appearance, the worse he looked, in my opinion. The plastic surgeons who let him do that to his face were negligent.

But let’s not kid ourselves – the press loved those flaws, and wanted to prise open the cracks further. They slavered over stories of “Whacko Jacko’s” bizarre behaviour, and positively worked themselves into a frenzy when there were allegations that Jackson was a child molester. They loved the thought that Jackson’s nose might be about to collapse, or that he endangered his third child by dangling him over a balcony. The whackier his antics, the better.

So to see the press crying crocodile tears over Jackson’s death is repellent. The cynic in me suspects that if there’s any genuine crying, it’s on account of the fact they won’t be able to run any more stories about Jacko’s antics.

Conspicuous compassion

And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

(Matthew 6:5 – 6, KJV)

The other thing which Jackson’s death has brought to the fore is the phenomenon which has been called “conspicuous compassion“. Patrick West wrote a book exploring this phenomenon in 2004, in which he argued:

This book’s thesis is that such displays of empathy [such as buying flowers for a deceased celebrity] do not change the world for the better: they do not help the poor, diseased, dispossessed or bereaved. Our culture of ostentatious caring concerns, rather, projecting one’s ego, and informing others what a deeply caring individual you are. It is about feeling good, not doing good, and illustrates not how altruistic we have become, but how selfish.

I’m not quite as harsh as West is. But I would observe that, paradoxically, it seems people are more comfortable with expressions of grief about the death of a celebrity than they are about the death of a loved one.

I can’t help thinking of a discussion I had with a friend whose mother died about 10 years ago. Apparently I had said something that really reminded my friend of her mother, and she laughed with pleasure. I had never met her mother; she had died before I knew my friend. We then talked about some other funny things her mother had done. “I like talking about Mum,” said my friend, “She was a great person.” She said it had been really difficult once the initial grief had receded, because she had wanted to talk about her mother and her feeling of loss, but no one knew what to say, so they just avoided the topic entirely.

The conspicuous display of grief in the wake of the death of a celebrity is an odd phenomenon. In some ways, I think people feel more comfortable with displaying grief in those circumstances precisely because they didn’t really know the person who died. Perhaps, for some, the death of a celebrity is a proxy allowing them to express grief about other losses, and to breach the subject of their own bereavement with friends. Perhaps there are positive aspects. But I cannot help feeling that the whole thing is bizarre.

When Princess Di died, I went into the City, and had to step over piles of flowers outside St Paul’s Cathedral to meet my friend at Flinders Street. The messages on the flowers were variations on a theme: “I loved you so much Diana, what will we do without you?” Reality check, please. Unless you were a close friend or family member of Princess Diana, I suspect you went on very much as you did before. Of course it’s sad, but it’s not comparable to the distress of losing a person whom you genuinely loved and knew. At the time, there was a real sense that if you didn’t share in this bathetic mourning, you were somehow heartless or nasty.

Conclusion

How do the two points I raise link together? I think we have a sense that we really know celebrities – almost a sense that we own them. And songs are potent stuff indeed: songs which had importance in a particular time in our lives make us feel like we know the person who wrote and performed them.

But let us be under no illusions – this sense that we know celebrities is false. It is manufactured by the media, for their own purposes – primarily, of course to make money. They make money because most of us are fascinated by the stories they print or show.

Of course we can feel sorrow for the death of someone like Jackson, but it’s as well to remember that we didn’t actually know him or own him. At least now hopefully he’s at peace.

Update:

This piece has been cross-posted at Online Opinion on 1/7/2009. Have a look, there’s some interesting comments there.

28 Comments

  1. terry
    Posted June 30, 2009 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    In my Grumpy Old Man mood I had some fondness for the thought that the swine flue would give the Y generation something real to face up to . However reality has struck back and the flu has turned into a media event as well.

  2. su
    Posted June 30, 2009 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    Perhaps, for some, the death of a celebrity is a proxy allowing them to express grief about other losses, and to breach the subject of their own bereavement with friends.

    I think that is true, or at least it is what I believe about collective displays of emotion for a celebrity. In some way I think it may also be connected to the power of story telling. People can be oblivious to circumstances in their own lives while being tremendously moved by the very same circumstances translated into fiction or film and celebrities are created by the stories told about them in the press. Is there any difference between our emotional involvement with a celebrity persona and the way we become deeply involved with compelling personalities in literature or film? Apart from the obvious one that real people can suffer from all of that emotional focus. It is hard not to see MJ and Diana as victims, not just of the press but of that mass emotional projection that you spoke about, even if the literal cause of death is more mundane.

  3. Posted June 30, 2009 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    Well said. And yet… when I heard that Diana had died I did feel a little teary, and I didn’t really admire her much – I thought that she was a damaged and manipulative woman. But I think I felt sad for the loss of potential – that she might have one day grown up and become something much better. Also, I think that the loss of someone who has been so much in the public eye inevitably reminds us of losses of our own, in a general kind of way, and thus the tears. Loss reminds us of past griefs.

  4. Posted June 30, 2009 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    He was a saint for the whole week-end. Then they slipped outta the dress shoes, put down the black-armband and slipped into some bovver boots and suspenders: MJ was not the father of his children, MJ was secretly gay and had it off with a construction worker at a cheap motel on Thurs nights, MJ was a junkie…
    .
    Wait til they get to the real meat.
    .
    But they wouldna write this stuff if we didn’t read it. We’re the hypocrites. The media’s just a melange of greasy toads.
    .
    PS Princess Diana was a moron whose entire life was an earned cushy ride. Except, of course, for that one time she had sex with Prince Chuck.
    .
    We all know about Harry 🙂

  5. Posted June 30, 2009 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    Um that’s unearned cushy ride.

  6. Posey
    Posted June 30, 2009 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    I know this is fully sick but I quite liked Princess Diana. She was canny and her parents they f**ked her up and she served it back up to the Royal Family in spades.

    There is a whole archetypal thing going on with celebrity worship which for me is kinda interesting from a Jungian perspective.

  7. Posted June 30, 2009 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    I should add that I think that people who make money by poking their telephoto lenses into other peoples’ marriages and cellulite necessitate an entirely other circle of Hell.
    .
    Parasites.
    .
    When George Clooney started out in movies he criticized these pests and they decided not to take photos of him thereby proving how vital they were to the rise of movie stars.
    .
    And as we all know Georgfe was a terrible failure as a result. 🙂

  8. Posted June 30, 2009 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    And Diana – virgin and whore simultaneously (depending on who you talked to).

    Tradition of British royalty innit?

  9. Posted July 1, 2009 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    Yes Adrien re Clooney, and he also spoke out about paps and Diana Very Soon after.
    He’s OK.

    The hypocrisy of The Press is mind-numbing, but we should not expect anything else. This morning – “we cross to our reporter on the spot at Neverland”, who the said “this funeral could be a circus” …

    well you’re there for s start on that becoming the case.

    The morons wailing at the gates are of course … morons

    (oops. am I allowed to say that or should it be Learning Difficulties?)

  10. Posted July 1, 2009 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    It occured to me last night that perhaps one of the reasons for the widespread reaction to Jackson’s death was the fact that Jackson doesn’t seem to have been alive for years. He didn’t even seem organic: maybe he wore the face mask to avoid germs; maybe he really just wanted to avoid breathing. He avoided, to a large extent, any real contact with people; something as organic and messy as sex was probably right out. And the plastic surgery he took, over all those years, is comparable to the process of embalming. And certainly his most famous work, ‘Thriller’, shows him as a zombie. (And am I wrong, or has he also portrayed himself as another ‘undead/non-living’ being, a robot?)

    Perhaps Jackson didn’t really want to be seen as ‘dead’, but he must have seemed this way to everyone else. It’s easier to relate to, to sympathise with, and to understand a person who looks conventionally organic – ‘if you prick us, do we not bleed’? Jackson’s death may have seemed like a factual and logical confirmation of what physically had been going on for years.

    Looking at the pics of Jackson on this post by Dr Cat are interesting for me because they remind me of the 19th-century Dandy ideal. As the colour drained out of Jackson’s face, he seems to have become less and less worldly, stranger, and more fey; in the final pick he seems utterly listless, worn out, as if the sheer effort of, well, effort has destroyed him. Trying to think of a way of describing it, these lines by Yeats came to mind:

    And what if excess of love
    Bewildered them till they died?
    All changed, changed utterly:
    A terrible beauty is born.

    Yeats wasn’t even thinking of Jackson, but the lines seem apt.

  11. Posted July 2, 2009 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    This post is one of the few I’ve seen that not only produced interesting discussion here (as you’d expect, we have good regulars), but over at Online Opinion as well, which is unusual. Often discussions there get pretty silly pretty quick, but not in this case. If nothing else, that indicates serious quality.

    Just on the ownership thing, I saw Jamie Foxx carrying on that African-Americans ‘owned’ Jackson, and that they’d merely loaned him to the world at large. My immediate reaction was, ‘no, mate, Jackson belonged to himself, and any loaning out was done at his instigation’. I don’t know how widespread that sort of reflexive collectivity is among African-Americans. If it is widespread, it may explain their economic disadvantage just as well as racism and economic exploitation.

  12. Posted July 2, 2009 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know how widespread that sort of reflexive collectivity is among African-Americans. If it is widespread, it may explain their economic disadvantage just as well as racism and economic exploitation.

    Or their economic disadvantage might xplain it. In the novel City of Spades which concerns the friendship between two young men – a Neo-Edwardian misfit and a Nigerian hipster – the Neo-Edwardian is being subjected to a little Blimpian racism from his superior who is dismissing black people altogether. He concedes their Jazz but adds ‘insofar as you can call it theirs’. This was the attitude extant for a long time. Elvis Presley became a massive star simply by doing ‘black music’. The Rolling Stones the same. When the Stones went to America they decided to record at Chess studios and met Muddy Waters there. The dude was painting the walls. Short of cash. The studio had given him the job to help him out.

    In Martin Scorsese’s doco-series on the blues there’s an episode on the British guitarists of the 60s. For some reason the old blues players are asked if they’re grateful. They say yes, and they’re sincere, but there’s a certain bitterness there. Those English boys made more money in a year than Muddy Waters had his whole life.

    People like Foxx see those sorts of comments as a duty in furtherance of the emacipation of his people. I can see good reason for this but there’s a line that gets crossed and what once was revolutionary liberation becomes a crushing orthodoxy. Guess that’s what we’re seeing now. Afro-American culture is becoming chauvanistic now that it’s being given the respect it deserves.

  13. Posted July 2, 2009 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

    The morons wailing at the gates are of course … morons

    (oops. am I allowed to say that or should it be Learning Difficulties?)

    Depends AOD, are you trying to to insult the people at the gate or those with intellectual disabilities?

  14. su
    Posted July 3, 2009 at 7:01 am | Permalink

    @Adrien and SL: Like most things it is probably both/and but not only. I was listening to a doco on Richard Wright where they spoke about the “crabs in a bucket” syndrome among black people , the way that trying to escape from bad circumstances often involved undermining others who were also trying to rise above. It is something I have witnessed amongst disability groups as well. As an example in a climate of overall financial disadvantage, increased services or funding for a specific set of needs was seen as a slight to groups who didn’t share those needs, watching people try to scupper plans out of unconscious envy is pretty awful. For wily politicians it is pretty easy to hamstring a movement by playing on those petty jealousies. Divide and conquer etc.

  15. su
    Posted July 3, 2009 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    It is isn’t it? As a kid I did a bit of fishing for mud crab in NQ so I thoroughly approve. I read something about genuine scarcity exaccerbating the tragedy of the commons and perhaps that has something to do with this kind of behavior?

  16. pete m
    Posted July 3, 2009 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    Great post LE. 100 times better than McKew’s paltry effort in The Punch today.

    re bucket – it works for feminism to some extent too. See too often the biggest hurdle a woman faces has been placed their by other women.

    I think the media is mostly responding to the public’s demand re MJ – articles on him have been the highest read. But of course they go too far, and it causes people with some sympathy (especially for his children – and I don’t care who the real parents are) to instead get sick of it all very quickly and care less.

    I too found parenthood made me acutely more emotional about stories of children suffering / new parents losing their life. It also kept me awake at night wondering how’d I’d react if something aweful happened to my kids.

    While Prince Charles put up with a lot, I do have the impression he married not for love but for the sake of it. Quite sad really, and may well have contributed to Diana’s psychositic reaction to it all. And Adrien, don’t be sour because you didn’t get a reply to your fan mail.

  17. Posted July 3, 2009 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    Now I know what Eminem meant when he asked ‘am I just another crab in the bucket’ in ‘8 mile road’ (very impressive song from the movie). I’d always heard it as a mondegreen, ie ‘crap in the bucket’ and never got it. Now I do.

    Also I’m not sure it’s unconscious envy with things like that su. I think it’s highly deliberate; LE and I have had a few chats offline about ‘the politics of envy’ and just how ugly it can get. We seem to have lost the ability to accept graciously that some people have exceptional talent and should just be appreciated for what they are. The hypocritical media treatment of MJ falls into that category, I suspect.

  18. Posted July 3, 2009 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

    I’m inclined to agree with West about conspicuous compassion. And Jackson’s musical legacy has been overstated. Not that he wasn’t a significant pop star, the only influence would be that his collaborations with McCartney; Jagger; van Halen et al led to an increase in other collaborations – U2 and BB King; the Travelling Wilburys etc. But that’s not a musical movement like the ones started by the Beatles; Rolling Stones; Dylan; Nirvana etc. That’s about it really.

  19. Posted July 5, 2009 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    Su – that trying to escape from bad circumstances often involved undermining others who were also trying to rise above.

    And also trying to so undermine because one doesn’t expect to escape one’s self? The British working classes, and by inheritance the Australian people generally, have long had this problem of condemning those who try to get ‘above themselves’. For some reason sport seems the exception. It’s okay to rise in sport but in anything intellectual? Forget it.

    One of the things I’ve observed when hanging out with people in this circumstance is that there’s a sense of collectiveness, material and spiritual, that accompanied by the tendency of the miserable to get inibriated as often as posible ‘keeps you down’. You’re not permitted to save your money because you’re obliged to get pissed with your homies. And to foot the bill if they’re broke. And any time spent alone in cultivation is viewed as a rebuke.

    The Scots were able to rise and the Irish not so because the former learned to save money, to invest it and to read widely. Course the poor old Irish were fucked over by England and Holy Mother Church.

    Afro-Americans have always had this problem. That was what Macolm X and Marcus Garvey contributed and it has penetrated:

    I had a name for makin paper since paper mache

    Now my dollar coins join pounds of yen for play

    While you broke niggaz reach drunk much quicker

    You don’t make enough bread to soak up all your liquor

    De La Soul
    “Ooh”
    Art Official Intelligence

    ‘S good for the wisdom and ta shake yer arse as well like. 🙂

  20. Posted July 5, 2009 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    LL – But that’s not a musical movement like the ones started by the Beatles; Rolling Stones; Dylan; Nirvana etc. That’s about it really.

    the Beatles and the Stones headlined a musical mobement that just manifested. No-one really started it. Or if they did, it would’ve been the Rockers who were in their 20s when Lennon and Jagger were little boys and the Jewish East End lads who started what would become ‘Mod’. Dylan, likewise, the star of a movement already established. Nirvana, the same.

    And Michael Jackson was part of Motown. Sure he didn’t start it but neither did any of those people listed above. He was a shining light of it however and it is just as important as Dylan/Beatles/Stones.

    That all said he got self-indulgent and bloated after Thriller. He just assumed he was getting better and better and he was just getting flabbier and gaudier.

    If he’d died in 1985 he would be legendary. What happened after that year was progressively sadder and sadder. It’s shame he was massively talented. He could’ve really soared.

One Trackback

  1. By skepticlawyer » Crabs in a bucket on July 4, 2009 at 12:44 pm

    […] comments on my post on Michael Jackson, Su mentioned the “crabs in a bucket” syndrome that affects race relations in the US – the notion […]

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