With the media feeding frenzy upon the death of Michael Jackson, I was hesitant to throw anything onto the huge pile. What needs to be said, when so many other people have said so much already? Unfortunately, as the coverage continued for weeks, most of what I saw was a lot of fantasy, grandstanding, bickering, and all sorts of other unfair treatments.
Can we not learn something real from the life of Michael Jackson? Can we not put aside our egos, our insecurities, our personal identities, and our own selfish, subconscious interests, and be purely objective?
In regards to his achievements, I will honor Michael Jackson for his work as an entertainer. He was amazing. He was an historic dancer and songwriter. In regards to his character, and claim to ‘leadership’ or being a ‘role model’, I couldn’t dissent more. There is almost nothing about Michael Jackson’s life that I deem worthy for emulation. But it’s not just Michael Jackson. I feel the same about Elvis, Britney Spears, and all of the other manufactured celebrities.
Michael Jackson isn’t the first celebrity who inspired the observations that I will present. There is a pattern of lost opportunity for artists, fans, and even our society and culture at large. I see profound lessons in the death of Michael Jackson, if we could only be honest with ourselves.
I don’t think anyone could have said it better than Herbert Spencer, a 19th century British philosopher and poet, when he said:
“The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly is to fill the world with fools.”
The news coverage of Michael Jackson that I was subjected to forcibly by non-stop coverage had only two parts. One part was “shielding from folly” by his ‘followers’ who seemed to come out of the woodwork only in time to stop ignoring him or mocking him on comedy shows. The second part of coverage was people outraged by those hypocrites, trying to dismiss Michael Jackson completely.
In my perception, this is what made the public reaction to the death of Michael Jackson tragic – a gaggle of polarized fools smacking each other in the faces with knit gloves while human decency lay abandoned at their feet, a victim of vainglory, ego, and selfish identity wars.
The advent of Mass Media brought about new challenges and concepts we have not addressed even to this day. In 2009, after over a century of Mass Media, we are still manufacturing celebrity.
The manufacturing process
In the big business of manufacturing celebrity, the process can be summarized beginning with:
- Massive amounts of money that is controlled by…
- Rich, high-risk-taking, gambling speculators and plutocracies of celebrity-inheritance who use, create, and breed…
- Talented (and sometimes untalented) entertainers like race horses, who dazzle and captivate…
- The general, entertainment-consuming public with…
- Amazing (and sometimes artificially amazing) spectacles of showmanship which consumes…
- Billions of dollars every year so that it can fund the next cycle of…
- Massive amounts of money that is controlled by…
- Repeat the above.
Sometimes the gambling plutocracies latch onto very young children, because there is an inexplicable fascination with seeing a young and talented child sing lyrics that they don’t truly understand and engage in social and financial dynamics that are very complex for well-grounded adults, let alone the undeveloped mind of a child.
The Jackson Five was just one of these experiments, but they are by no means alone in this class of tragic specimens. The Disney machine from which Britney Spears, Jonas Brothers, Miley Cyrus, Lindsay Lohan, Zac Efron, Hilary Duff, Christina Aguilera, Demi Lovato, and many others were produced had a large monopoly on this manufacturing process, until American Idol came along and showed them how masterminds can do it even better.
The American Idol machine works like this:
- Millions of people who desire fame and fortune believe that they are decent pop entertainers
- They audition for minor judges in cities across the USA
- If they are absolutely horrible, they get on national television
- If they are outstanding singers, they get on national television
- If they are decent singers, they get turned away immediately
- After all the nonsense and mostly subjective judging, we are left with a few contenders
- The general public “votes” on those contenders, and we are supposed to believe that the votes are actually used to determine who wins
- A winner is declared, and the winner gets to make an album and get promoted with lots of money
- They enter the cyclical manufacturing celebrity process described above, with the added bonus of tons of pre-existing hype and exposure from their long ordeal of ‘competition’ on national television
In addition to the massive revenues from a primetime TV show, the music of the winner (and some runners-up) is almost guaranteed to make back its production costs and profit on top. American Idol is an absolutely ingenious machine for manufacturing celebrity.
This is not to discredit the talent of the individuals who are the pliable material that the elites use in this process. As with any other manufacturing process: garbage in, garbage out. The sufficiency of the input materials (in this case, talented human beings) is required to ensure the quality of the output (in this case, celebrity entertainers).
So what is the end result? What does the final product look like?
Defining popular-music celebrity
While the manufacturing celebrity process is applicable to any entertainment format, let’s focus on popular music celebrities (Rock, Pop, R&B, Hip Hop, Country, etc.) where the iniquities of cultural and artistic monopolies are blatantly obvious.
I must say that I love popular music. I appreciate all of the major genres, from Rock to Hip Hop, from Country to R&B. I, myself, compose and perform popular music (Rock, Dance, R&B) in addition to Jazz and Classical.
So what are the typical lifetime-pursuits of popular-music celebrities? Let’s define them:
- Singing, rapping, or other vocal expression of words and human-voice sounds (vocalizing)
- Playing musical instruments with skill (instrumentation)
- Music composition – writing the music that brings life and emotion to the songs (songwriting)
- Dancing, acrobatics, physical feats, gyrations, or other displays of physical movement (dancing)
- Financial management of a growing enterprise, the commerce of personal image and art, endorsements, product lines, and the employment that is required for any organization of mid-to-large size (financing & business pursuits)
- Cultural and social inspiration and influence (inspiration)
- Charitable giving – once large enough and with more-than-sufficient funds, many celebrities take up a charitable cause to bolster their own image and legacy (charity)
When you look at the cumulative efforts of the most renowned popular-music celebrities, certainly they are impressive, but they are almost never the best at any one of those pursuits.
I believe that there is consensus among connoisseurs and gurus of these pursuits that:
- Michael Jackson could not sing better or more challenging works than Luciano Pavarotti. Michael Jackson was not the best at vocalization and not the best singer.
- Michael Jackson could not play the piano better than Frederic Chopin. Michael Jackson was not the best at instrumentation.
- Michael Jackson could not compose music better than Antonio Vivaldi (who composed over 500 concerti, 46 operas, 90 sonatas, and somewhere between 60 and 70 church/worship compositions) or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (who composed over 600 works in less than 35 years of living). Michael Jackson was not the best at songwriting.
- Michael Jackson could not dance better than Galina Ulanova. He was not the best dancer.
- Michael Jackson could not run his own financial enterprise and provision employment opportunities better than Bill Gates of Microsoft. Michael Jackson was not the best financier or businessman.
- Michael Jackson could not inspire more people in more profound ways than Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Buddha, Mohammed, Susan B. Anthony, Spartacus, Caesar Augustus, Baruch Spinoza, Edmund Burke, Thomas Hobbes, or Mother Theresa. Michael Jackson was not the best inspirer.
- Michael Jackson could not do more good for charity across the world than the cumulative tax-giving of hardworking taxpayers, nor could he generate more philanthropic output than charitable religious organizations and humanitarian funds. In addition, Michael Jackson left behind no eternal inventions to move mankind forward, or businesses that are self-sustaining for continued work-output that helps people. Michael Jackson was far from the best philanthropist and charitable citizens.
While Michael Jackson wasn’t the best singer, instrument-player, music composer, dancer, businessman, inspirer, or philanthropist – when you add up his contributions in all of these areas, he was a legendary popular music celebrity.
Even though Popular Music celebrities are rarely the best at their individual pursuits, what makes them truly successful and valuable? I think that popular musicians should strive for fantastic creativity that shows us things we’ve never seen, in ways we’ve never imagined, while communicating emotions and ideas that we reflect! With this in mind, I believe Michael Jackson was legendarily successful at his job.
Even still, Michael Jackson was not a role model in my eyes. I think that he could’ve been a role model, but the odds were stacked against him. Unfortunately, the industrial waste byproducts of the celebrity manufacturing process are incidentally harmful to healthy life, stability, prudence, magnanimity, wisdom, and the other things that make true role models. Michael Jackson certainly is not the first celebrity to be infected by these byproducts.
Byproducts of the celebrity manufacturing process
Byproduct #1 is self-destruction of the celebrity. This includes: weak character, spoiled-brat behavior, unmediated temperament, narcissism, instability, propensity for drug abuse, propensity for betrayal of loved ones, arrested development, stale inspiration, isolation, depression, and paranoia.
Strange things happen when power, fame, and money find their way into the hands of those who are ill-prepared to wield it. An individual with great character and wisdom would use those uncommon gifts to invent and create sustainable enterprises that bring progress and success to many people even after individual has passed on.
An ill-prepared individual would use the power, fame, and money to service their own egos, consume extravagant amounts of resources and luxuries, control other people, push out their rivals unfairly, and concern themselves with their legacy and image more than the raw output of continued acts of achievement and contribution.
Surrounded by servants, and an unending line of leeches who beg at their trough, and placatory supporters, the normal boundaries, opportunities, and challenges of interpersonal human experience are corrupted. The power and money turns what should be natural struggle and confrontation, into unnatural pretension and falsely-resolved outcomes. In essence, the natural human weakness of all parties involved is magnified because shallow motivations are the driving force behind everyone’s behavior.
This is the root of the self-destruction. Money and power in the wrong hands corrupts ill-prepared minds. Forget about abuse and family issues. I have seen abused and impoverished children rise above adversity with good hearts, morals, and determination. I have seen abused children not succeed in anything but to gain fantastic character in the inner city, and make great families and communities. These people are role models to me.
On the other hand, I have seen spoiled and privileged children who are treated like celebrities by their parents end up becoming drug dealers, drug addicts, cheaters, liars, narcissists, and the most tragic of the tragic people.
The byproduct of self-destruction is a tragedy for everyone involved and inflicts those from poor and wealthy backgrounds indiscriminately.
Byproduct #2 is the stifling of free market opportunities. When big powers manufacture celebrity, they do so at the expense of all the worthy artists out there who may even have more talent and potential than the artists that the elites are nurturing. Would you like the best artists to have earned their place? Would you like the best artists to have gained life experience that creates genuine artistic expressions? The stifling impositions of this manufacturing process crush justice, quality, artistic integrity, and opportunities for fans and artists to control their own options.
As the free market is stifled, we all lose. We don’t need The Disney Channel, MTV, American Idol, and other celebrity manufacturers to define who we get to listen to. We don’t need big money to artificially destabilize the lives of talented people, using them like marionettes on a stage to maximize dramatic effect. As artists, we don’t need to think like beggars, hoping that someday that big money will come our way, and then we can attach the strings to our limbs and do the dance that our newly-found masters command.
We need a direct connection between fans, artists, and the business so that the free market can operate in a natural state.
Byproduct #3 is new-age feudalism and cronyism. The lords of media and entertainment use their connections to rub each others’ backs, and eventually their children carry on the exclusive empires as well. Such children, who are unlikely to be well-equipped for the business of entertainment – but they are simply forced into it by birthright.
For societies that proclaim the virtues of freedom, equality, and justice – the entertainment industry must be very disappointing. The entertainment oligarchies need to start thinking about putting the art itself above lifestyles, ego, image, legacy, cultural control, connections, and friends.
With all of these byproducts which harm our culture, the celebrities themselves, and create the establishment of dishonorable operations and feudalism one question still boggles my mind.
Why is it that some people really look at celebrities like role models?
Manufactured celebrities are not role models to me
I have a grandfather who volunteered to take his friend’s post in the Pacific during World War 2, because even though my grandfather was just married, his friend already had children. That’s a role model. In fact, because of all that my grandfather was to the family, he is the biggest role model to me. But of course, I have idealized and distant role models too. Maximus from the movie “Gladiator” is a role model to me. Hamlet from Kenneth Branagh’s movie “Hamlet” is a role model to me. Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesus Christ are role models to me.
What about Michael Jackson? I just know too much about his personal life that makes me not really want to emulate anything about him. I think he’s a tragic figure, not a heroic one. To me, he’s no different than Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and many more. I see the vast squandering of opportunity and privilege which disgusts me; whereas, with my grandfather, I see the noble and magnanimous nurturing and sacrifice of very little privilege and opportunity. If my grandfather had access to that kind of money, power, influence, and fame, a man like him would have not only done right by his family and children, but he would have also created self-sustaining enterprises to make jobs for people that last. He was a hardworking man who believed in industry and the raw output of hands in motion.
We need to stop placing ‘popularity’ as the highest ideal, over real stuff. When you strip away the superficial façade of all these manufactured celebrities combined, we’re left with the drug addictions, death by drugs, child abuse, adultery, child endangerment, arrogance, superficiality, narcissism, reckless sexual behavior that uses human beings like throwaway trash, materialism, domestic violence, egregious family feuds, destruction of property, and other dishonorable antics.
What is it about these things that certain people find attractive for emulation? In a society of broken families, with a 60-70% divorce rate, the generation of the 90s and 00s is even more desperate to latch onto something different, something that’s unlike the disappointments they experienced at home, something they can invest their hopes and dreams in.
They’re looking for idols and direction. But they will find only long-term disappointment when they forge a relationship with a manufactured celebrity. At worst they will emulate or apologize for the dishonorable behavior. At best, they will continue to fall short of finding noble ideals and healthy direction in their lives.
The relationship we seek with manufactured celebrities is convenient, not genuine. The minute that the celebrity no longer provides fuel for the wandering fans to feed upon, they are forgotten entirely. The wandering fans move on to the next superficial icon of popularity. This binge-and-purge behavior shows how shallow the relationship is.
For many years before the death of Michael Jackson, no one cared about him at all, except to mock him on comedy shows. All of the sudden, when he dies, the vultures want to pick apart his empire like the scavengers that they are. Where will the money go? Who will gain the buddy-buddy connections to Michael Jackson’s surviving entourage? As a student of history, really this is nothing new. You can look not only to monarchies of the past, but also aristocracies of Italy (Medici anyone?), political families of ancient Rome, or military families of barbarians tribes.
So as I watched the terrible carnival that they called a funeral for Michael Jackson, I did so through the lens of history – most of the players on that stage looking to me just like the vultures of Rome and barbarian tribes. Those who did not care about Michael Jackson only one month earlier, were now prostrating themselves before his surviving empire so that they may potentially gain favor from the connections and money wielders, or maybe to get some media attention for their own selfish platforms.
When my grandfather died, I received his only nice pair of cufflinks and a tie clip that he wore. That is all. I guarantee that this small inheritance is worth more to me than a million dollars is worth to any of those vultures who now pick Michael Jackson’s body clean. It’s like a scene from the old west where people pull the boots off of a man as he lay dying.
Is this how we are meant to live? Is this how we are meant to die? Never has a rich man looked so poor and devoid of valuable things to me. I pity Michael Jackson. Not a hero, but a tragedy to me. For these indignities that his true loved ones must now shoulder – I have great sympathy.
But then there is always charity. And a manufactured celebrity nearly always falls into the game of image-building with charities. Sometimes sincere, never truly helpful to people in the long-term, and frequently respected by the public much more than it should be.
Charity: give me instant gratification, or give me a tool of empowerment?
I’m very cynical in regards to celebrity charities. I have some different ideas about what truly benevolent people do. Whether rich or poor, they help other people. They don’t take photo shoots. They don’t make a spectacle of it. They mentor people, and they do what they can within their power to make progress. I would love to see a celebrity support philanthropic pursuits in secret for their lifetime, only to reveal the secrets posthumously.
Moreover, there’s a matter of proportion and scandal. Many of the “give money away” charities end up being fronts for moving money around. Most of them simply create power bubbles that serve special interests of small groups of people. A true philanthropist considers the welfare and needs of everyone, indiscriminately. Real benevolence is creating long-lasting enterprises that are self-sustaining because they generate useful work-output for society.
It is not creating a feel-good give-away operation where elite people can service their legacy, egos, and pride. As for the elites who have so much power and money that they have trouble consuming even more luxuries – what more can they buy? Well they can buy more pride. It’s very easy when you take a picture of yourself giving stuff away.
Why don’t they make a viable organization that actually generates work-output instead of these temporary money-funnels? They could only do that if they started with a premise – take interest in leading the horse to water, to create a tool of empowerment that helps people in a self-sustaining way. Instead, they set up give-away operations to shove the water down the horse’s throat as they recline on the grass. This generates the desired effect of instant gratification, caring, and image-building for the benevolent celebrity ‘reliever’, our hero.
There’s also the matter of proportion. A celebrity giving a “benefit show” for one day is no larger commitment or sacrifice than a teenager volunteering for a day to help a canned food drive for a local church. A celebrity doing a ‘benefit tour’ is actually less of a sacrifice than a college student going on a summer charity job to build houses for the disabled and destitute.
Why is the celebrity making less of a sacrifice? Because the celebrity enjoys an empire that can keep them living like kings for the rest of their lives. What do they have to worry about? A middle-class college student who spends a summer volunteering still comes back to the same loans, mortgages, family needs, and unsecure financial future that they always had. They’ll still have to wonder if they can afford adequate housing for the family they’d like to have. They’ll still have to wonder if they can build their career enough to cover their basic needs. The celebrity doesn’t have these concerns, since all of their basic needs have already been supremely satisfied for life.
Let’s do a financial comparison. I will address the money right out of the net worth of the celebrity (not the money that comes out of foundations/money-funnels). We’re not talking salaries and incomes, we’re talking net worth. If a celebrity is worth over $500 million, and they give away 2 million, it’s like a middle class person giving away only $136.
I have to tell you something, I know many middle class and blue collar people who are much more charitable than celebrities when you take into account proportion and scale.
What could celebrities do instead? It’d be nice to see newly created, long-lasting and self-sustaining enterprises that do crucial work-output for the economy and our people. That would be an impressive feat for a celebrity to invest in. Turn your money into a sustainable business operation, rather than a short-lived funnel for small fractions of your money that lasts only long enough to get your photo shoot completed.
Of course, as Santa Claus has proven every Christmas, giving stuff away is the best way to bolster superficial joy and gain popularity among those who don’t think too hard. It’s a great image-building pursuit. On the other hand, investing in a self-sustaining business or invention does create genuine philanthropic results in the long term – but it’s never been a grand image-building pursuit. That’s why celebrities opt for the Santa Claus routine.
Again…those who are ill-prepared to wield such money, power, and fame…what do we expect? The charity of manufactured celebrities is yet another tragic folly.
Technology and Business Process Engineering to save the day
Is it possible to extract ourselves from the binge-and-purge cycle of consuming manufactured celebrity? Maybe. We know the benefits already. Our culture itself would benefit the most, followed by the fans, artists, and business.
When everyone complains about the low quality of modern TV, movies, and music – well, what do we expect when the competitive process is either stifled, fake, or run by modern feudal lords and inheritance?
I do believe we can do it, if we start a dialogue and seek art for the sake of art, and not what is just shoved in our faces. It’s a vicious cycle, but I know many who are breaking it. They tune out from MTV, American Idol, Disney, and the rest of the manufacturer’s enterprises.
When they see a celebrity abuse their luck and privilege by doing ridiculous things, maybe they abandon the artist, realizing that there are plenty of artists out there who have a lot more to offer. This is much like the time-tested democratic tactic of boycotting.
Most importantly, genuine fans just look at the art without context of popularity or personal affairs of the artist. They don’t buy celebrity gossip magazines or newspapers. They don’t tune into celebrity TV shows. If you ask them about the personal life of a celebrity, they really don’t know that much, expect for maybe a few details about their favorites. They look at the entertainer like any other job – enjoying the product greatly, but not supporting a vicious industry of paparazzi by showing obsessive interest in the details of entertainers’ lives.
To some people, it doesn’t matter what the artist is doing if they’re just so good at their craft. This is because they’ve successfully broken the cycle of manufacturing celebrity. They separate the act and products of the entertainer from the real person who wears the celebrity image.
Wherever our entertainment culture is headed, I know that giving fans and artists more power will help. This is a big part of MYnstrel’s mission. We treat music with the scientific scrutiny of Sir Isaac Newton, the psychological ingenuity of Sigmund Freud, and the philosophical rigor of Aristotle. By reinventing a holistic approach that puts the fans, artists, and decentralized music business professionals in charge – we can break the cycle of manufacturing celebrity.
Not only do we all win, but perhaps tragic figures like Elvis and Michael Jackson might have been able to grow their persona naturally and in a healthy manner. The cycle of self-destruction is heart breaking. I feel for Michael Jackson and his loved ones. What could Michael Jackson have been if he wasn’t corrupted by this money and power imposition by the elites? Might he have been a real role model? Might he have been a hero instead of a tragedy? Might he have been impervious to drug addiction? Might he have had a normal family in a natural way, with a mother who doesn’t reject child custody? Might he have lived much more happily and comfortably without extreme psychological duress?
This dishonorable practice must be reformed. It has claimed enough talented lives, overshadowed too many deserving contenders, and stifled our culture for decades. Now let’s start thinking about man-made solutions to the man-made problem of manufacturing celebrity.