American popular culture is our eternal present, our illusion of deathlessness. We don’t really mourn the death of a pop-culture icon. We use his extinction to resurrect his life. In America, the death of an American star is really the occasion for a garrulous, obsessive, round-the-clock denial of death.
This week we have been surrounded by the deaths of celebrities, which is to say that we have been surrounded by a 24-hour conversation about types. Ed McMahon: The Sidekick. Farah Fawcett: The Pinup Girl. Karl Malden: The Method Actor.
Much has been written about the influence Jackson had on other singers, but the most consequential thing he did was to make the pop song a fusion of drama and music.
But the most fascinating high-powered extinction has of course been the tragic end of Michael Jackson, and he occupies the most fascinating celebrity category. Jackson’s celebrity-type was the most complex and interesting—and American—of them all. He was The Hybrid.
Hybridity is the American purity. Our most beloved cultural figures are fantastical fusions of opposites, improbable microcosms of the larger national melting pot. Marilyn, for example, who was absolutely innocent and absolutely corrupt at the same time. Or Sinatra, whose masculine voice emanated from a lithe female body. There was feline Brando, with that woman’s face buried in the macho features. White Elvis with his deep black voice; male Elvis who outraged people because he gyrated his pelvis like a female stripper, rather than thrusting like a copulating man.
You could say that, unlike these other figures, Michael Jackson had his hybridity thrust upon him. Breaking his nose during a live performance when he was in his early 20s, he had several nose jobs that transformed his looks.
He then repeatedly had plastic surgery performed on his face to realign his looks to the drastic reshapings of his nose. As his human anguish intensified—anxiety, depression, insomnia—his face took on more and more of the aspect of an adjustable machine. The increasing whiteness of his skin (he said it was the result of a disease, while gossip-mongers insisted it was the consequence of Jackson using bleach to alter his appearance); his woman’s hairstyle; even his signature “moonwalk” dance, which creates the illusion of moving forward while walking backward—all of these juxtaposed contrasts made it seem as though he was either deliberately turning himself into a hybrid, or parodying hybridity itself.
Other hybrids, or their children, gravitated toward him. Lisa Marie Presley married him. Brando, whose own broken nose made his feminine side poignant and his masculine side almost ironic, became one of his closest friends. You could see, for his part, why Jackson gravitated toward Brando. Hybrids escape their conflicted nature into the theatrical. Hybrids are usually actors, and those who aren’t often seek to escape into the theater’s impersonality, into its surrender of self. Sinatra and Elvis both had acting careers, and Marilyn spent a good part of her career as an actor trying to learn how to become a better one. Much has been written about the influence Jackson had on other singers, but the most consequential thing he did was to make the pop song a fusion of drama and music.
It was significant that Quincy Jones, composer of film scores par excellence, produced Jackson’s album Off the Wall. The two had met when Jackson played the scarecrow in the movie version of The Wiz, whose musical score Jones had arranged. From then on—if you will pardon the outrageous comparison—just as Wagner had combined theater, symphonic music, painting, and literature in his operas, Jackson created his own special fusion of pop song, show tune, film score, music video, and robotic pantomime in his music and his performances. He poured his hybridity into his art.
Jackson’s success was to make this capacity to pour the odd angles of his nature into fantasy available to everyone who listened to his music. You cannot listen to “Thriller”—song or album—without starting to dramatize yourself in some made-up situation or another. It’s no coincidence that Jackson’s rise happened at the same time as the rise of the Walkman (remember that?), a device that allowed you to move through your days to your very own musical score, as if you were starring in your very own movie.
That’s as it should be: We are all hybrids to some degree, and fantasy is the only one of two places where our conflicting aspects work in harmony. The other place is sleep, into which fantasy sometimes rushes headlong when life overwhelms it. That is the other, fatal, quality of hybrids. They hunger for—as the tabloids are putting it in Jackson’s sad case—“potentially lethal sleep.”
Lee Siegel has written about culture and politics and is the author of three books: Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently, Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.