Michael Jackson, Jarvis Cocker, and the long, slow beginning of the end

As you may well have realized by now today marks the 5th anniversary of the death of Michael Jackson. Yes, 5 years! I can still quite clearly remember the moment I found out via the news channels late one evening.

It was shocking certainly, and whilst I can´t claim to have shed any tears I do remember feeling slightly sad at the passing of a part of my childhood. It wasn´t so much the death of Jackson himself, but rather the era of greater innocence that he seemed to represent and to a certain extent embody. To anyone who grew up in the 70´s and, particularly, the 80´s this was the King Of Pop, a supremely gifted performer who had at one time reigned supreme in pop charts all over the world. The natural heir to the likes of Elvis and The Beatles he transcended cultural boundaries, appealed to young and old alike and at the peak of his fame could probably quite fairly lay claim to the title of the most famous person on the planet.

This was helped in no small part by the fact that during the 80´s he was also making fabulous hit record after fabulous hit record. Along with this he was also able to fully embrace the MTV age, making a string of memorable promos including the famous moonwalking, pavement-lighting ´Billie Jean´video and the epic (for the time) 13 minute ´mini-film´for the song ´Thriller´(we at MVD will be doing a lengthier series of posts on MJ in which we will cover these in much more detail, don´t worry…). His only plausible rivals at this time were Madonna (in terms of style and Icon status) and Prince (in terms of performance and sheer musicality) but he almost certainly edged them both and the ´King of Pop´ title was no hyperbolic tag but rather a statement of fact. He ruled, everyone else was scrapping for second place.

Fast forward a few years, to 1996 to be precise, and it´s fair to say that the crown had slipped somewhat. Dogged by a reputation for odd behavior and living a wholly eccentric and other-worldly existence and also, more seriously, persistent allegations of paedophilia that spread beyond the court-room to become common media tropes his image was irrevocably tarnished. None of this was helped by the fact that his recent records hadn´t quite been up to the standard of his golden period (notwithstanding 1995´s You Are Not Alone, probably his last great single). Jackson´s way of dealing with all of this publicly was to not only carry on obliviously but also to ramp up the grandeur, the megolamania, the exaggerated sense of self which in his mind was probably perfectly justifiable given his profile, but to everyone else (particularly us cynical, scathing Brits) merely served to give fuel to greater mockery and ridicule.

And it was against this backdrop that he arrived at the 1996 Brit awards to perform his latest single Earth Song, ostensibly a song about the environment, and how we need to take care of Mother nature and realize the folly of our selfish ways before it´s too late etc etc… but which was actually a rather self-aggrandizing statement which seemed to implicitly suggest that he himself was going to do no less than heal the goddamn planet in a kind of quasi-messianic manner through the sheer power of his talent and stardom. To put it very bluntly, he had seriously lost the plot and was living in a bubble so far removed from the rest of us that he had lost all rational perspective on life, people, existence in general. Here was a man trapped in his own ego, completely unable to see how a stage performance in which ´sick´ children are brought on only to be magically ´healed´ by Jackson dressed in white and stood ´cross-shaped´ might not go down that well in a largely secular and mercilessly sarcastic country immediately able to see through the whole ridiculous charade.

And indeed, on this night one such Brit took it upon himself to show exactly what he thought. Pulp´s lead-singer Jarvis Cocker proceeded to do what so many of us would love to have done. Entering stage-left at about the 5 minute mark he wanders in front of the assembled cast-of-too-many and after a moment or two decides to stick his ass out towards the audience and use his hands to illustrate the entirely flatulent nature of the ongoing performance before being chased from the stage and arrested on a ludicrous assault charge which was subsequently dropped, although not before he spent a night in the cells. Of the incident Cocker later said “My actions were a form of protest at the way Michael Jackson sees himself as some kind of Christ-like figure with the power of healing. I just ran on the stage. I didn’t make any contact with anyone as far as I recall”. Already a ´cool´ Britpop figure, Cocker´s cultural currency soared in Britain as a result of the incident (although the tabloid press couldn´t resist giving him a bit of a kick) and is something with which he is indelibly associated.

As for Jackson, this incident was just one of many that made up the long, slow artistic and personal decline that constituted the last 20 years of his life. Unable to recapture the glowing intensity of his 80´s heyday and living an entirely abnormal life he was, by the time of his death, a rather tragic figure. In the wake of his passing I remember thinking rather morbidly that it was maybe the kindest thing that could have happened to his career as it seemed to be the first time in a long time people were focusing on the music and looking past the freak-show that surrounded it. The apocryphal remark is that if you´re famous you´re never more popular than the day after you die and this was certainly the case here as people indulged in the largest outpouring of grief since the death of Princess Diana. Now Jackson was untouchable, immortal, deified almost. The King was back to remind us that the crown may have been a little rusty by this time but it still very much belonged to him.

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