Depressingly familiar tale
Whether it turns out that he died of heart disease, a cocktail of potent prescription drugs or just years of indulgence and excess, one verdict is inescapable: What really killed Michael Jackson was an overdose of showbiz values. Like so many child stars before him, from Judy Garland and Sammy Davis Jr. to Tatum O’Neal and River Phoenix and Lindsay Lohan, Jackson never found himself a home in the real world.
For Jackson, like so many child stars, show business was his safe haven, the place that shaped his hopes and his dreams, only to drag him into a hellish black hole of unquenchable ego gratification, anxiety, vanity, arrested development, strange obsessions and rampant insecurity.
It happens every day -- just look at how oh-so-many Hollywood types measure their self-worth by their weekend grosses -- but it’s particularly rough when you find yourself on the cover of Rolling Stone when you’re 10. From the time Michael was 6 he was the acknowledged star of his family’s burgeoning music empire, displaying the kind of exhilarating stage persona that helped make the Jackson 5 Motown’s last great crossover music act.
It came out only later that Michael bitterly resented being the family meal ticket. Bullied by his father -- he called him his Bad Daddy -- teased by his brothers, who made fun of his big nose, which Michael quickly set about whittling away to practically nothing -- he was, like so many child stars, robbed of any real childhood. He had no friends, only handlers. His only validation was the applause and the acclaim.
When your life is defined by showbiz success, you develop a huge hole in your soul, a hole that often gets filled with drugs, booze or other self-destructive behavior. It happens with depressing regularity, whether to O’Neal (who won an Oscar at 10, then descended into a prolonged battle with drugs), Drew Barrymore (booze at 11, coke at 14), Lohan (a Disney star at 12 before a steep descent into DUI arrests, coke and rehab), Macaulay Culkin (from “Home Alone” stardom to abuse of prescription pills) and Corey Feldman (the young star of “Goonies” who quickly became a poster boy for booze, drugs and excess). Not everyone survives, with Phoenix dying of a speedball overdose at 23 and Brad Renfro succumbing to a heroin OD at 25.
Jackson had plenty of struggles with drugs, becoming addicted to painkillers in the 1990s, ending with him going into rehab to recover. It’s no surprise why so many child stars disappear down the drug-riddled rabbit hole. The drugs are simply a convenient substitute for the real rush, the heady intoxication of fame and adulation. Instead of developing a strong inner self and a realistic approach to the world, people like Jackson retreat into fantasy, where they can indulge their fantasies without grappling with reality.
Burden of stardom
Perhaps his need for fantasy explains why Jackson was so obsessed with stars from past eras, most famously Elizabeth Taylor, since stardom was the only lifestyle he could really relate to. It was his fascination with Elvis Presley that perhaps led to his bizarre marriage to Lisa Marie Presley, who had experience -- via her own father -- dealing with an unhinged, narcissistic recluse. The marriage lasted only two years, but she did get Jackson into rehab after he was buffeted by allegations of sexual abuse with a 13-year-old child.
Although many of today’s former child stars seem utterly lacking in self-control, much less self-awareness, Jackson was different.
For all his unbridled Wacko Jacko narcissism, when it came to his craft, he had steely discipline, clearly having put in Malcolm Gladwell’s requisite 10,000 hours of practice rehearsing and refining his moves, starting with his childhood days in the Motown machine. But it soon became apparent that Jackson’s artistic ambitions were overwhelmed by his desire for money and fame and all the trappings that went with it. He was, after all, the man who demanded that the media refer to him as the King of Pop.
One of the most revealing accounts of Jackson’s maniacal quest for material gain and awards is found in “Howling at the Moon,” a memoir by former CBS Records chief Walter Yetnikoff, who ran the label when Jackson was having his huge hits. Yetnikoff recalls Jackson bemoaning that he’d never had a childhood.
“All he knew was singing and performing,” Yetnikoff says. “His focus was on his career and career alone. ‘Understand,’ he told me. ‘that I was a star when I was six.’ Sometimes I felt that he was still six. I wasn’t sure he could name the president of the United States. He had no social skills. He was a child who sought the company of other children. He only sought my company because I was the man who controlled the hype machine.”
The quest to be No. 1
To Jackson, everything was a numbers game. Artistic validity was nice, but what he really craved was selling the most records and landing the most Grammys. Like many people in showbiz, he measured his success against the accomplishments of his peers and rivals. It’s a soul-destroying game, but it’s how the game is played in Hollywood.
After Jackson’s “Off the Wall” album won only a single Grammy, despite selling millions of albums, he called Yetnikoff to complain. The personality change was abrupt, from fragile artist to cold-eyed competitor.
“Michael’s high, inaudible voice changes tone when he’s unhappy,” Yetnikoff said. “He becomes an angry little boy who won’t be happy until he gets all the candy in the candy jar. ‘Mine was the first solo album to have four Top Ten singles,’ he said. ‘That means I should get at least four Grammys.’ ”
Yetnikoff told him to be happy with one. He wasn’t. But the next time out, “Thriller” won multiple Grammys for Jackson and producer Quincy Jones. Yetnikoff says Jackson still wasn’t happy -- he wanted all the Grammys for himself. It must have been awful for Jackson, in his later years, to see all that success slip away, since success was really all he lived for. It’s hard to know what was in his head as he tried to reboot his career one last time, middle-aged and obviously frail, out of touch with the pop currents of the day, yet still desperate for one more grab at the brass ring, one more moment at the top.
His downfall is hardly unique. It happens in show business all the time, the insecurity and the neediness overwhelming genuine talent because that talent, especially when ripened at an early age, is so often smothered by the absence of any real self-worth. For Michael, everything was skin deep, from his plastic surgery and skin color alterations to his strange costumes and gauze masks. Inside, he was a sad, hollow shell. He was the embodiment of the oldest showbiz fable of them all, that underneath all the tinsel, lies more tinsel.