Go Climb a Tree

Michael Jackson and other childish things

Here we are, on the brink of a messy, bloody war with Iraq (again); the economy is in free fall (again); our leaders are clueless, conservative assbags (again); and yet North America is obsessing instead over some passing TV amusement (again). Deep in our hearts, we all knew that stuff about how we'd never be frivolous again after Sept. 11 was just a bunch of hooey, didn't we? We're Americans; being frivolous is our birthright.

As I write, the nation's latest fixation is Martin Bashir's interview with Michael Jackson; by the time you read these words, it's likely that the interview will be taught in ancient history courses at the graduate level and we'll have moved on to the next ridiculous distraction, but I suspect the self-proclaimed King of Pop's latest debacle will loom large in the national consciousness even as our boys begin dropping the bombs with "Rock the Casbah" stenciled on them. Seriously, there were moments in the Jackson interview we'll all take to our graves: his bizarre description of the night Tatum O'Neal attempted to relieve him of his virginity; his desperate attempt to bottle-feed poor baby "Blanket" through a sheer green scarf wrapped around the child's head; his heartbreaking description of the way his father endlessly made fun of Jackson's wide nose, the very nose he is now apparently attempting to whittle off his face. Once you started watching this thing, there was no way you were turning it off.

But as I watched, I wasn't outraged by Jackson's clumsy evasions, as Bashir clearly intended me to be. Instead, I was outraged with Bashir for manipulating a fragile and clearly unbalanced individual like Jackson for eight long months, for playing the affable but impartial journalist so well, only to then produce a report of hectoring, judgmental nastiness. Putting aside Jackson's more questionable behavior (we'll get back to that), we are left with an out-of-touch pop star being held up as a psycho freak for doing things that really weren't so strange at all; admit it, if you had all that money, you'd probably jet off to Vegas for no reason sometimes and build Disneyland in your back yard too. Staying up all night playing video games or spending way too much money on questionable décor doesn't make you a loony for the ages; it makes you somebody who can afford to do those things. When Bashir gave Jackson a hard time for being a 44-year-old man who still climbs trees, I found myself in complete agreement with Jackson when he said Bashir was missing out.

But given Jackson's joyless, haunted demeanor, one sensed that even though he did all these ostensibly fun things, he was missing out too. He's spent zillions trying to recapture the happy childhood he never knew; the money keeps rolling out, but he just keeps getting older and unhappier.

Did Jackson molest those kids 10 years ago? I tend to doubt it; I'm not sure Jackson's sexuality is even that fully formed. Should his own kids be taken away from him on the grounds that he's an unfit parent, so lost in his own head that he's hardly aware of the outside world, let alone the dangers of dangling a child from a balcony? Maybe, but that's not my call, or yours.

Jackson makes all too clear the dangers of refusing to grow up, but as we gather around to point and laugh at the weirdo with the funny voice and the funny face, we're not being too grown-up ourselves. Jackson's is a valuable cautionary tale for a culture more caught up in childish entertainments than the troublesome business of sorting out our own tomorrows; he has become, in the endless twilight of his unnatural boyhood, our nation's bleached and sickly shadow. But as desperately as America needs to do some growing up, I hope we never completely leave behind that inborn silliness that drives the terrorists nuts and makes us special.

After all, so long as the flesh is able, is one ever really too old to climb a tree?

 
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