OK, I admit it. I never met Michael Jackson. I don’t think I know anyone who’s ever met Michael Jackson. This appears to put me in a minority.
All weekend anybody who had ever been on the same planet as the infamous singer has been pontificating on “the Michael I knew”. From spoonbenders to bodyguards, nannies to speechwriters (“Well, I’m not actually his speechwriter”, said one interviewee on Radio Four, “but I did help him write one in 2001”): everyone has been wheeled out for a quote.
All the comments, articles and interviews from these “close friends” comprise a very confusing jigsaw. Try and put the pieces together, you’d suspect none of them knew him at all: was he genius or monster, abused or abuser, addict or prude, billionaire or bankrupt, loner or partygoer, creepy or friendly, genuine or plastic, homosexual or husband, black or white? It’s as if scores of different Michael Jacksons have emerged from the woodwork over the last three days: the public can now pick and mix their own version from the various options on offer.
I felt for the poor obituary producers on the 24-hour news channels, desperately trying to sum up the man in just 45 seconds. In fact, you had to feel sorry for all conventional journalists on Thursday night. If the death of Jackson spelt the end of the 1980s (as one correspondent described it yesterday), the nature of his passing was pure 2009. How very typical of the man to be so of the moment that the news came not from any conventional source, but posted on the web. For nearly two hours the celebrity gossip site TMZ doggedly insisted he was dead, while the combined weight of all the news organisations hedged its bets by having him in a coma, or just “in a very bad way”. Millions were twittering RIPs long before the television stations confirmed it, despite all their news helicopters humming over the hospital.
It’s done wonders for his career, of course. Shares in the Jackson brand have soared, and millions of dollars worth of his debts will be paid off over the next few weeks as we rush to buy his albums. The suddenness of his passing, the continuing suspicion surrounding the drugs and the doctors, has probably achieved more record sales than any number of concerts arranged for his ill-conceived comeback.
In many ways, his death was the least unexpected of any personality. Hounded to death by debts, drugs and the vampire-like cravings of his hangers-on, his destruction was bound to happen sooner or later. It was the only conceivable release from his sad, unavoidable decline. Even in the unlikely event that the London concerts would have taken place, they would almost certainly have exposed an old, sick, spent, fallen idol. Now, by dying in such appropriately mysterious circumstances, he joins the mythical legends of his own fantasies: Elvis, Marilyn, Princess Diana, James Dean. It’s exactly what he would have wanted: pure, distilled publicity.
In life, the world wasn’t sure how to read him: paedophile or pitiful, fragile or failure; now, in death, words like icon and legend are being thrown around. For me, I just loved the music. But it’s a tabloid newspaper’s dream, one that they’ve been rehearsing for years, as the world’s obsession with popular trash culture has grown. Forget Jade Goody, Katie and Peter’s marriage: this story is the real deal. It’s going to run and run – no need for Max Clifford this time.
It’s as if Jackson, through the grave, has finally taken control of his own publicity machine. As each interview and counterclaim adds to the enigma, Jackson is writing his own legend. It’s his final masterpiece and we’re all obsessed with it.