Michaell Jackson Trial WSJ Perspective


Pushing the Envelope
Michael Jackson: A freaky culture’s Peter Pan.

Friday, June 3, 2005 12:01 a.m.

“Why can’t you share your bed? That’s the most loving thing to do, to share your bed with someone.”

–Michael Jackson on British TV, 2003     

“I agree with you. I mean, this is a bizarre habit. . . . He has finally understood that some conduct is so violative of a social norm that you just can’t do that, however innocent it may have been.”

–Geraldo Rivera on U.S. TV, 2005     

“There’s too much confusion . . .”

–Jimi Hendrix, 1968     

If one is going to call a newspaper column Wonder Land, one must write about a 46-year-old man who lives in Neverland. But there’s no Tinker Bell in this story.

People probably find it hard to get a personal hook into the Michael Jackson trial. The trial’s final arguments, believe it or not, are this week. Themichaeljacksontrial, like the Kobebryantcase, has come to be a single word that seems to describe a separate reality. When Michael Jackson danced on top of a car early in the trial, I signed on the dotted line of conventional wisdom and agreed this was a freak show that I didn’t need to attend.

This means I missed seeing the testimony of the mother of the boy Michael Jackson is accused of molesting. She described how during the time she claims to have been held captive inside Neverland by Michael’s flunkies, she let them take her for what Jackson lawyer Thomas Mesereau called “a body wax.” “Incorrect,” she snapped, “it was a leg wax.” But if Liz Taylor, or even Liza Minnelli, had testified on Mr. Jackson’s behalf, I would have watched.

It would be nice to think we can separate him from us, to dismiss the Jackson trial as a freak show. But Michael Jackson has been an astute, successful user of our culture for a long time. By now there is more of us in him than we might want to know. Jimi Hendrix might not have been a seer, but to have written, in 1968, that he sensed “too much confusion” was to foresee the arc of American culture over the next 30 years. It has become very confusing.

In 1968, The Jackson 5 signed with Motown Records, a label linked to a golden age of American music. Motown’s music–the Temptations, the Miracles–was quite innocent. The Jackson 5 recorded “ABC” and “I’ll Be There,” music from a less knowing time. By the mid-1980s, Michael Jackson had revolutionized music with startlingly innovative videos that made MTV a cultural icon. It was about then that notions like “edginess” and “pushing the edge of the envelope” entered the lexicon. Cable TV programming pushed the edge of the envelope. So did museum shows and many others. They pushed the Motown culture over the cliff. It was a hoot.

In 1991, Michael Jackson produced a video called “Black and White” for MTV and VH1, which ends with him smashing store windows, wrecking a car with a crowbar and, most famously, rubbing his crotch. Times had changed. And let us stipulate that Michael Jackson had a lot of company, not least a population looking in and wishing they could be inside the bubble, too (and they got there, with the arrival of reality TV).

The celebrity culture of narcissism ramped up, with whole TV channels dedicated to it. Girls attended junior high school dressed just like Britney or Christina. Hip-hop’s homeboys and ho’s went from MTV videos to the street corner. American culture has always been protean, subject to change without notice, but not so fast that you couldn’t get a grip. The jazz age, Sinatra, Elvis–people learned how to live with it. By the 1990s, every envelope in sight was getting pushed, and times changed fast. Some say the 2004 election was decided by voters who thought the times had changed too fast.

So it is not beyond imagining that when Tom Sneddon’s brain processed the life and times of Michael Jackson on the Neverland ranch, he ordered a raid. Then the Santa Barbara County district attorney, in what almost sounds like a commercial for something someone might be selling now, said in a felony complaint that Mr. Jackson “willfully, unlawfully and lewdly committed a lewd and lascivious act, upon and with the boy’s body and certain parts and members thereof, with the intent of arousing, appealing to, and gratifying the lust, passions and sexual desires.”

Mr. Jackson is the son of a steelworker from Gary, Indiana. Mr. Sneddon is the son of a Los Angeles baker. Mr. Jackson went his way to wealth and Neverland. Mr. Sneddon went to Notre Dame, met his wife on a blind date and had nine children.

Who’s right–about life and about crime?

Tom Sneddon is a straight arrow, and probably not much interested in theories about Michael Jackson’s claims of childhood abuse by his father. But millions of Americans are. Bestseller lists teem with books for people wrestling with internal demons and personal confusion. The current one is “Approval Addiction: Overcoming Your Need to Please Everyone.”

Tom Sneddon may lose this case. If so, it will be because Mr. Jackson, like Kobe Bryant, was able to mount a defense equal to the accusatory powers of the state. Not everyone can do that. If Michael walks, I’ll wonder if any of the many convicted Catholic priests similarly charged were in fact innocent but found guilty because they couldn’t push back against the state’s relentless steamroller.

Michael may be a freak, but he isn’t the only freak. We live in a freaky culture. It is a culture confused about many things–about personal behavior, about identity, about norms of any sort. It’s thought to be very adult. But it’s interesting that Michael Jackson, who’s been driving the culture for much of the trip, ended up in a place called Neverland. Michael Jackson may indeed win and return to Neverland. But if he doesn’t, the trial’s last message to the culture may be: It’s time to grow up.
Mr. Henninger is deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page. His column appears Fridays in the Journal and on OpinionJournal.com.

Copyright © 2005 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved


One Response to “Michaell Jackson Trial WSJ Perspective”

  1. Judith Says:

    Michael Jackson was found innocent of all charges in 2005. This article shouldn\’t be prime news listed on the internet under his name. Michael Jackson was beautiful in song, spirit, charity, and love for all people. Most of the world will miss him in song and dance. The media will miss him because they sought opportunities to trash him and consequently make a few bucks. The media is so unethical that the field of journalism is tainted, in my professional opinion.

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