In honor of Michael Jackson, we’re raiding our archives. Here’s Simon Frith’s London dispatch–it ran in Frith’s regular ‘Brit Beat’ column–on the bonkers media spectacle that broke out when Jackson came to town in 1988.
By Simon Frith
August 16, 1988
“Pandemonium broke out in Soho, London, when a Michael Jackson look-alike was confronted by fans, bringing traffic to a standstill, a court heard yesterday. Ronnie Beharry of Peckham, South London, admitted behaviour constituting a disturbance of the peace, and was bound over for six months in the sum of 100 pounds by Bow Street magistrates.”–(news item, July 26, 1988)
I was quite wrong about Michael Jackson. I thought his visit would be a matter of spectacular routine, a familiar star (familiar from a million hoardings, radio spots, and video clips) going through familiar paces (like Bruce Springsteen the week before) to familiar feelings of wonderment and awe.
But this was to forget the power of the British tabloid press to fashion glamour in its own terms, and “Wacko Jacko” was immediately assigned lead role in the greatest show of media pop frenzy since the Sex Pistols. The more exposure Jackson got, the more mysterious he became; the more we read about him, the more we wanted to read. The Sun, as usual, best grasped the public mood, printing “exclusive” Jackson photos so blurred that it was impossible to make out anyone at all. When he arrived, three and a half hours late, for his record company’s celebration dinner, journalists and press officers actually scuffled for a view of him in the flesh. No wonder poor old Ronnie Beharry was arrested, charged, and bound over just for looking like his idol.
I’m not sure (I didn’t get tickets) that the “live” Jackson show as such was what fed the excitement–the unofficial consensus seemed to be that the heart-stopping moments, Michael on the move, lit up too much dull rock display. But such criticism was known to miss the point, and in public every critic raved, came over all queer, indeed, and wished, like John Peel, that their children, born and unborn, could have been there. And being there soon meant, too, joining the thousands of people who gathered each night outside the stadium to imagine together, number by number, just what they were missing.
When he first touched down in England, the Wacko Jacko stories were straightforward; the man with the plastic face (and the plastic bubble), who adjured sex (and talked to chimps), was the stuff of chauvinist jokes. But as the fact of his inaccessibility sank in–just to be black near his hotel was to guarantee a posse of chasing newsmen–so the tabloid approach shifted. Jackson couldn’t be talked to through the keyhole and nothing could be invented about his eccentricity that wasn’t already true. The only way to compete for Jackson news was, then, to get close to him by other means–finding old employees, by revealing (every newspaper claiming inside Jackson knowledge) that Wacko was a regular guy!
By the end of the first week of his visit, Michael Jackson had been reread. He was not ideally foolish now but ideally innocent. He had become, that is (with little Jimmy, his companion, whose father may or may not have been gifted with a Rolls), a holy fool, and there was a peculiar religiosity to his concert reviews, as if people were going to Wembley (a common setting for revivalist meetings) to be redeemed.
Michael Jackson isn’t really famous for his music. Rather, the songs, the voice, the dance steps, are vehicles for his fame, and it is the quality of this fame that has made his stay here so intriguing. Like the great media icons of the past (Chaplin and Mickey Muse, Presley and the Beatles), Jackson has given shape–a voice, a beat, a body–to a new stage of corporate entertainment, has “humanised” a new level of exploitation. He is not, that is, just another pop or rock (or soul or funk) star, but the first great multimedia, multinational, multisensual sales force.
Jackson doesn’t just happen to advertise Pepsi Cola (a star endorsing a product); he exists only as an agent for such advertising. He doesn’t just happen to cross-over; his music is held suspended in the vector created by cross-over. The earnest psychologists of the British quality press (whose take on Jackson is the same as the tabloids’ but expressed less vulgarly) explain that Jackson only “lives” on stage, can only make sense of a world already mediated by Speilberg and Disney, by marketing teams and soft-drink fantasies. But this is now true for the rest of us too, which is why MJ is famous–as our guide through a new way of feeling, or rather, not feeling things. Wouldn’t we all like to be so sure-footed, so sweet-natured, so unerringly rich?