Michael Jackson: The Man and the Myth

In a secular and anti-heroic age, the devotion of fans to celebrities is that of believers to gods. Expect the death of the god-like King of Pop to be denied, says myth scholar Robert A. Segal.

June 27, 2009

If there are not already biographies of Michael Jackson with the subtitle “the man and the myth”, doubtless there will be. What I find objectionable is not the phrase, however hackneyed it is, but the meaning. The distinction here between “man” and “myth” is that between truth and falsity.

I prefer to use “myth” more neutrally. For me, myth may be either true or false. What makes even truth mythic is the spell that it has. An event, an idea, or a person can be mythic. To call a person mythic is to elevate the person from an exceptional human being – a hero – to a virtual god.

The classic work on heroes is Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841). Carlyle outright declares that heroes, while usually just human, are “worshipped”. Aptly, Carlyle uses the term “mythic” synonymously with “divine”.

In the academic study of myth, mere heroes, however glorious, are conventionally distinguished from gods. Folklorists even categorise stories about most heroes as legends rather than myths. Yet contrary to convention, heroism can blur the line between the human and the divine – not by demoting gods to humans but by elevating humans to gods.

Heroes overcome the gap between humans and gods. Their divine qualities can range from physical attributes (strength, size, looks) to intangible ones (intelligence, drive, integrity). The difference between humans and gods may be of kind. Often, gods can fly, can change shape, and live forever. Or the difference may be of degree. Typically, gods are bigger, stronger, sexier and smarter than humans. Like a god, a hero is commonly touted for just one divine attribute. But even a difference in mere degree of a single quality still puts divinity beyond the reach of most.

Contemporary heroes, we are often told, are anti-heroes. Far from divine, the contemporary hero is hopelessly human: mortal, powerless, amoral. The present-day hero is often lowly even within the human community: more the outsider than the insider, more the loser than the winner, more the villain than the savior. The contemporary hero is not a once-great figure who has fallen but a figure who never rises. Sisyphus, not Oedipus, let alone Heracles, epitomises contemporary heroism. Sisyphus is to be commended only for never giving up. Traditional heroic virtues such as courage and duty have given way to new ones such as irony and detachment.

Yet traditional heroism has scarcely died out. Present-day heroes in sports, entertainment, business and politics are admired for their success, and the acclaim bestowed on them often reaches a divine plateau. The most obvious present-day heroes are celebrities.

The devotion of fans to celebrities is like that of believers to gods. Celebrities are “idolised” and “worshipped”. The top ones are called “gods” or at least divinely chosen kings and queens. As “stars", celebrities shine brightly in heaven above. Fans are “star struck".

Just as gods can, typically, do as they please, so, it is assumed, can celebrities. Fans are shocked to discovered that stars are subject to arrest and even imprisonment for offenses to which the rest of us would scarcely be immune: drug taking (Robert Downey, Jr.) and shoplifting (Winona Rider). The sexual escapades of stars are taken for granted. Michael Jackson’s fans objected to his being charged with paedophilia.

The myth of a person is the person’s life, recounted in a biography. Michael Jackson was the best performer of his time. It was not so much the songs, but the performances, that were exceptional. In god-like fashion, he transcended human physical limits. He defied gravity.

What do believers want from gods? They may want wealth, power or long life. But above all they want contact. They do not seek to become gods themselves. They seek only to encounter their gods. Michael’s shows gave his fans the most spectacular of encounters.

Like a god, Michael could change his appearance. He could even change the one thing that no other mortal could: his race. He defied ageing, remaining not merely a young man but a young adolescent. Like Peter Pan, he refused to grow up, naming his house Neverland. He could surround himself with children and see himself as one of them. He could sing in a squealing, high-pitched, child-like voice. Like a teen, he could get away with grabbing his crotch, and as part of his performance.

Michael Jackson was a god-like figure in his life. And he will live on through more than his music. His death itself will be denied.

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