Celebrity is now something that comes about as much through attention as achievement. But the case of the Michael Jackson trial is more than a blip of photographs and prose loaded down with gush, hysteria and snoop. Michael Jackson is not Paris Hilton, though some might think he would like to be. He is such a master of step, spin and turn on the dance floor that Fred Astaire called him a genius.
Yet Jackson the man is like many of the people and things that have emerged since the upheaval of the 1960s. We saw revolutionary social changes that made for a much better society, but nothing ever arrives alone, especially in America. Our enormous latitude for invention, lunacy and profit always allow the worst to come along almost immediately following a set of innovations.
In the case of the '60s, irrefutably important social changes were contrasted by the adolescent blob of rock culture that eventually swallowed up much of the taste and obscured much of the talent of the society. We saw the loud and the obvious take up more of our cultural space. Adolescent obsessions with sensation and the sensational pushed most subtle forms of expression into the margins as teenage angst became more and more dominant.
Michael Jackson is an expression of that part of our social history, but also a symbol of other things - plastic surgery, the kind of adolescent attraction to childhood fantasies that we see in his Neverland home and our threadbare rock and roll aristocracy, which we witnessed when he married Elvis Presley's daughter.
This trial brought up questions about all this, but it seems to me that illusions of the man have been on trail along with Jackson himself. These illusions are grounded in what people assumed their relationship to Jackson was during periods of being enthralled by his music and videos. The amount of emotion we heap on our pop celebrities is suspect. People are not good guys just because they have ability.
The descent of Michael Jackson is testing that whole arena. For all that Jackson has done to control our illusions over a career that became progressively eccentric, his powers have fallen before the forces of this trial.
The publicity, the infinitude of speculations and the images of him either dancing atop a car on his first day of court appearance or being admonished for coming to court dressed in what seemed to be pajamas have proved his undoing.
He will never again be able to get by as any more than a vastly talented eccentric. He has now joined the ranks of the great freaks of our age and has no one to blame other than himself and his own willingness to play with the carnivorous forces that created his illusion.