Benevolent dictator vs Megastar
I don’t know if anyone who reads this blog is into true crime documentaries, but I was watching Leaving Neverland earlier this week. For whoever doesn’t know, it’s a recent documentary regarding sexual misconduct allegations against the late Michael Jackson.
I found it clearly told and the testimonials from the protagonists were compelling to watch. I doubt it’s my place to judge if this all is true or not; it’s not why I’m writing about it. I don’t know that I would recommend it to parents either but I think it’s well worth watching for anyone interested in pshychology, especially manipulative behaviour and the complex perspective of the manipulated, both of which are grippingly described. You will learn something about people’s interactions by watching this.
You will wonder what this has to do with anything. You won’t be surprised to hear that I found a Tito connection. You might be rolling your eyes but if you’re around my age or possibly older than me, cast your mind back to the ’80s and ’90s.
Anyone (in the Western world, at least) who was a kid or a teenager in the ’80s knows the megastar phenomenon. From what I understand, celebrity culture has changed nowadays, even though it feels even more pervasive (I guess the Kardashians are coming close to what Michael Jackson was, but it’s not the same thing, the feel is very different; though I do realise I’m not the best judge of contemporary celeb culture as I keep away from the obvious examples). Most everyone has a mobile with an internet connection or, us oldies, a laptop. At any time you can check out these celebs’ carefully curated FB and Twitter feeds. They are with you everywhere and you can interact by following them and posting giddy messages on their feeds 😉
Back then, things were a lot different, if not in intention (reaching out to celebrities), then in the way it was done. It was a lot more direct – you went to a concert or, if you were really hardcorde, a pre or post concert meet and greet, where you screamed your head off in ecstasy when the celeb arrived, after you spent hours cramped up with fellow fans in the scorching sun or in the freezing morning. If you were lucky enough, you got to meet your idol and briefly interact – in person.
Some people got into this kind of life and would regale their favourite musician (it was usually a musician, right?) with the going-ons in their life. This was pretty much the only way you could interact with your idol, unless you won a contest of some sort. The rest of the time was spent daydreaming, because you didn’t have 24/7 accounts of what they were up to. If you didn’t have cable TV (them’s the days), you had to buy teen music mags to keep up with their touring schedule or who they were currently romantically linked with.
I’m not entirely sure this is still the same, but kind of from the early days of of pop music there was this narrative of “the good guys” and “the bad guys”1 fed to the teens (which you may be reminded of in that Napoli Rinaldo with the ’80s celebs). This good vs bad thing was very clearly delimited. One of my most vivid memories from a holiday at the beach somewhere in the late ’80s was reading an article in one of those aforementioned teen mags (I read them all and was BIG into trading pop paraphernalia) that very convincingly described how Prince was the bad guy to Michael Jackson’s good guy. Where Prince unequivocally sang about sex, Michael Jackson sang Heal the World, loved animals and went everywhere in the company of children.
It’s one of those “you had to be there” kind of things just how powerful the Michael Jackson PR machine was in the ’80s. He didn’t usually do the kind of stuff I was into but even I had the Bad album (pirated tape, of course). He really was everywhere, even grandparents in ye old Eastern Europe knew who he was. Most everyone who cared had a good opinion of him, except for geeks, who saw in him the ultimate product of pop music corporatism. But even some of that lot admitted “well, he really can dance…”.
Wherever he went he was followed by the kind of hysterical crowd reaction only on par with that of Beatles fans back in the day, judging by period footage. You didn’t just like Michael Jackson, it appeared, you went nuts about him. I wish I could give you a more visceral description but I was into other things. Probably for the better.
It was sort of like tossing the Kardashians and Trump together but with dance moves and exotic pets and messages of peace and everybody loving each other – aimed at kids. It was this massive PG production, like if you switched from permananet wars and terrorist prevention and the “lock up your kids” attitude and instead created the atmosphere of a permanent Disneyland trip, with all the cool toys and the best candy. That was the image projected by Michael Jackson to my and to the previous generation.
The thing with that kind of adulation, though, is that you inevitably get secluded, and dude had the personality to go with that. A long time before the allegations started it was quite clear that Michael was rather odd. You know the deal – the unwillingness to act like an adult (though, career-wise he obviously coped with the best of them), the operations, the skin bleaching, the denial of the obvious regarding the previous two, the self victimisation (people don’t understand me, I had no childhood – that was most likely true, and probably contributed to him turning up not all right), his odd relationship with women (remember Brooke Shields, the perpetual virgin of the ’80s? They were like two peas in a pod! Then Lisa Marie Presley, a proto Kim Kardashian, and finally the lady who carried his children. This aside from his very interesting I love you-I want to be you friendship with Diana Ross and the equally interesting dysfunctional celeb friendship with the aging Liz Taylor. I’m sorry I have to use the term “interesting” where things are veering into emotional issues, but if you are interested in psychology, it is interesting).
Then let us not forget that he’d been not just a celebrity, but a major one since he was a child. So this guy did not have a life anywhere near the ballpark of regular. This is the kind of person for whom every whim is within the realm of possibility. But the price is remoteness from the very life that we, regular people, dream about escaping from. But when you can have Michelin meals everyday, I guess a packet of crisps sounds like pure freedom. So in a way I see that he would enjoy showing up at little people’s homes (though not too little; as yet we don’t have accounts of him hanging out in da hood) and having fun playing at the life of common people.
Now imagine you’re a kid with a major childish obsession with this exciting megastar, who lives an amazing life in an amazing environment that you can only dream of – and one day HE wants to be friends with YOU. He can be – and he is – friends with anyone he wants to and that seems to include all the major stars of your time, but he wants to spend most of his free time with YOU and not doing grownup things either, but playing games! Surely a dream come true if you’re 7!
He whisks you and your family away to his secluded fairytale ranch, that millons of kids around the world can only dream of, and tells you you can have anything you want. Mad, innit? This was reality for these two kids and many others. They were part of something bigger than their wildest imagination. How do you deal with something that is beyond your comprehension?
After this very long introduction, surely you can see the connection with the type of relationship Tito and Sesto might have. Then, if you look at that moment when Vitellia shares with Sesto that she might have even loved Tito at some point, you can see how she could be one of the previous best friends (there is a scene in the documentary when Macaulay Culkin appears in Michael Jacksons life and the kids realise they have been sidelined). I’m curious if there ever was a production that took this route. Probably not…
- The Beatles vs The Rolling Stones is a classic example. ↩