1-800-AUTOPSY: Notes Toward a Michael Jackson Essay I’ll Never Write

This line from the morning’s main Michael Jackson story on CNN caught my attention: “Vidal Herrera, founder of 1-800-AUTOPSY…”

In addition to being probably the best thing that happened to that CNN stringer all day, this sentence provoked in me a strange reaction, which was: Of course Jackson’s family got in touch with a place called 1-800-AUTOPSY. How could it be any other way?

That reaction told me something, I think, about the place that Michael Jackson had come to occupy in a certain part of our cultural collective unconscious. By the time of his death he had become the one celebrity who could virtually be counted on for headline-grabbing weirdness so outrageous that Jackson himself became a byword for headline-grabbing weirdness. Each weirdness–the surgeries, Neverland, the costumes, the children–topped the last in such a way that tempts the observer to suggest that Jackson got stranger and stranger because he was never going to top Thriller and had too many years to live in the shadow of his greatest creation.

He had become not just a parody of himself–plenty of celebrities become that–and not just a parodic exemplar of the child star who could never grow up, but the parodic exemplar of everything that can go wrong with wealth, fame, stardom, and enormous talent that manifests too soon. He was the racial-barrier-destroying performer (who ever would have thought MTV needed to be integrated?) who could never get comfortable in his own skin, and the steelworker’s child who died with hundreds of millions of dollars in both debts and assets.

He was Peter Pan, Horatio Alger, Elvis, and Howard Hughes all wrapped in one.

Plus he was black, at least at the beginning. (“I thought black was supposed to be beautiful,” scoffed my grandmother in about 1992, when Jackson’s hair had become straighter, his face more angular, his skin paler.)

Plus his sexuality was questionable. (Q: What did they find in Boy George’s closet? A: Michael Jackson’s other glove. This was one of the most common jokes heard in my 9th-grade lunchroom. Then it became a kind of meme, where you could suggest that someone was gay by implying that he knew the location of Michael Jackson’s other glove. But we all learned how to moonwalk, too.)

If there was ever a perfect focal point for all of America’s stories about itself, and the people it likes, and the people it doesn’t like, and its obsession with figuring out why it likes and doesn’t like those people, and its obsession with diagnosing and anatomizing its obsession with figuring…that was Michael Jackson. He was a field onto which America’s post-Vietnam/Woodstock/MLK/RFK/Malcolm/bra-burning/Apollo 11/Stonewall cultural psyche could project all of its tensions, and because he was such an obliging performer (his father taught him that, if nothing else), he played them out for us. If he had not existed, we would have had to invent him–and in a sense, we did.

It was always going to be too much for one man to handle.

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