Our Fascination with Michael Jackson: A Psychoanalyt’s Perspective

Bob Herbert’s column in the New York Times today (“Behind the Façade,” 7/04/09) was one of the first I have read that at least wondered about the compelling fascination of the public and the press with Michael Jackson’s death. Herbert believes that behind the fantasy or façade of the celebration of Jackson and his music, there is a denial of the reality of this life that involved child abuse and generally a tragic life. Herbert concludes, “As with many things, we don’t want to know.”

It is striking that amidst two wars and one of the worst economic downturns in our history with rampant unemployment disrupting individual and families’ lives, the lead stories are about Jackson’s alleged addiction to prescription drugs, whether his ex-wife will want custody of their children, and how many thousands of people will attend his memorial service. Is it really easier to think about those things than the real problems of our everyday lives? Probably yes.

What was or is it about Michael Jackson with which many identify remains so compelling? Maybe something about the fact that we watched him grow from a childhood star to adulthood, even as his personal life unraveled—a sort of precursor to our culture’s desire for the current “reality” shows—is par of it. We saw the Jackson Five skyrocket to fame during the early 1970’s, a family from Gary, Indiana making out of the pollution and poverty at the foot of Lake Michigan next to Chicago. Yet as the years went on, the dysfunction and problems of this ‘successful” family became known, we could see that talent, fame and fortune do little to address that dysfunction. Isn’t that something we are all aware of but sometimes deny? Children are used, if not exploited for the benefit of others. That is a common story that keeps psychoanalysts in business.

Combine this with the brilliant music, the dancing, the performances and the videos and we begin to see how intense feelings are stirred and might be what is behind the attention paid to this the fallen icon. President Obama said that Michael Jackson’s music is what he and many of us grew up with, yet even he was quick to acknowledge the problems in Jackson’s personal life. Though Farrah Fawcett died only five hours before Jackson, and also with fame and a personal life filled with domestic abuse, drugs and personal pain, hers was not enough for public consumption. The cover of people magazine only gave her a small corner photo on its cover compared to Jackson.

Herbert is on to something in terms of the denial of the realities of Jackson’s life, but he must also consider that to some degree it is a kind of denial we all at times need. Realities are sometimes too hard to do otherwise.

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