Forget pop - Michael Jackson's death reminds us of his great contributions to the Gothic. As the obituaries swing into motion, death is burnishing the man's reputation in its customary ways. Media outlets are delighted to change the subject from Iran and the economy, to have something to cover with ease and authority. We shouldn't be squeamish about poking at the freshly dead corpse. Now is the time instead for us to recall Jackson's Gothic roles, most notably his life's.
First, some of his songs are classics in horror music. The best of them is "Thriller" (1983), which brought werewolves (or werecats) and zombies back to pop. It also returned to us the sweet tones of Vincent Price. It's also a date movie, where the decent girl's guy turns out to be a monster - an ancient trope, and one fine antecedent to Twilight.
Ah, for the glory days of back-masking and Satanic panic.
Second, Jackson turned himself into a figure of Gothic horror, with his own life as a monster-in-progress. Perhaps having his head set on fire for a Pepsi commercial was the start. Repeated surgeries kept reshaping that very public body: rhinoplasty, facelifts, artificial clefts, skin color changes, what else was used to alter his appearance? Such a shape-shifting, mutating, fluid creature.
Splendid rumors kept bursting to the media's surface, like noisome gas in a swamp: this Gothic artist buying up the Elephant Man's bones, hanging out intimately with a chimpanzee, or sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber. Not to mention the repeated accusations of pedophilia. Charges of antisemitism. Stories of drug addiction, weight loss, hiding from the public, the deepening cult of childhood. And now the weirdness of a death at 50, depite access to the best medical care. Forget whatever biographic truth might lurk, somewhere down there, buried under strata of media, promotion, fear, and cult workship: the story has been one of monstrosity.
But getting at this is impossible without wading through tabloid culture, vast swamps of pop adoration, machines of publicity and sleaze. When was there before such a context for a Gothic character? An artist widely lusted after and also loathed for perversion. Is Lord Byron really the best comparison?
[D]oesn’t his life embody not just the Hero-Villain, but the Gothic itself?
Maybe not. If the Gothic is marginal, Michael Jackson was always ever canonical. If the Gothic is about the powerful ruins of history, Jackson fashioned himself out of one group and family alone. If the Gothic is politically subversive, then the fellow wasn't (note pic) (nor can he serve as a one-man argument for horror being reactionary).
PS: I don't like his music much. It's got to be said, some of us never did, no matter the eulogies and the onrushing pitchforks.