King of the Elves

You can't unmask Michael Jackson.


He's an androgynous shape-shifter, standing on the shadowy line between male and female, ugly and beautiful, white and black. He lives in a country called Neverland, and he's rumored to snatch children. Some say he's a king, and some say he's a criminal; his appetites, people whisper, are inhuman and cruel. We'll probably never understand Michael Jackson the man, but Michael Jackson the spectacle isn't hard to decipher: The archetypes are probably older than civilization.

Which goes a long way toward explaining why anyone still cares about him. It's been two decades since Jackson made music of any lasting vitality, and his recent releases have been financial as well as artistic failures. But the same public that increasingly rejects him on CD tunes in hungrily when he's dissected on TV: in Martin Bashir's documentary Living With Michael Jackson, in last night's Dateline special Michael Jackson Unmasked, in a forthcoming Fox program that pledges to show us footage we "were never meant to see." Needless to say, none of this renewed interest has anything to do with Jackson's music: Like Ozzy Osbourne, he's found a second career in a different sector of show business.

Nor, I suspect, does it spring from horror at the crimes the singer is supposed to have committed. Jackson provokes a lot of repulsion, but he inspires surprisingly little outrage: Unlike O.J. Simpson, to whom he is frequently compared, his chief public role is not The Man Who Got Away With A Terrible Crime. More often, his alleged pedophilia serves simply as a setup for tasteless jokes.

Why? One possibility, of course, is that people don't believe the charges. The Dateline special made a compelling case that Jackson is rich and strange, but its evidence that he abuses children was quite a bit thinner, unless you think it suspicious that a celebrity would have an alarm in his house, that a showbiz figure would associate with a producer of gay porn, or that a man famous for his arrested development would decorate his bedroom in a way that might appeal to a 13-year-old. The one factoid that actually sounded incriminating—that a boy who claims Jackson molested him then accurately described the man's genitals—was passed over in almost an instant, without follow-up, presumably to make time for yet another shot of the singer's botched plastic surgery. I have no idea whether Jackson is a child abuser—though, for the record, GQ made a strong case nine years ago that he molested no one and was actually the victim of a shakedown. I'm certainly not convinced that he's guilty, and I can't possibly be the only person who feels this way.

The public fascination with Jackson has less to do with whether he's a criminal and more to do with whether he could possibly be real at all. There used to be a theory that the musician's repeated surgeries were intended to transform himself into Diana Ross. These days you could make a better case for Marilyn Manson—or maybe, as Anomalies Unlimited suggests, Bizarro Superman. And what should we make of his entourage? I'm not just talking about all those kids, though his interest in them seems creepy even if it's completely innocent. I mean the adults. The most damning fact in the Dateline special may be that the two most prominent people willing to defend Jackson on camera are Donald Trump and Uri Geller. (Where's Macaulay Culkin? On second thought, don't answer that.)

Thursday night, Fox will air Jackson's rebuttal to the Bashir documentary. I'll probably watch it—not to expand my understanding of this man or the charges against him, but for the precious pleasure of staring, shocked and slack-jawed, at the television. Jackson's music lost its spark years ago, but who cares? He's raised the freak show to grand opera.