I SEE DEAD PEOPLE:
Elvis, Michael, and Diana
When Elvis died, ABC News reported on the Panama Canal. On August 16, 1977, Elvis was not “news.” Today, no one can recall what—if anything—was going on at the Canal that was so “newsworthy.” Today, everyone knows what he or she was doing when they heard the news that Elvis had left the building. I was on the road, driving to California to go to college. I passed through Memphis the day after the funeral of the King. For some reason celebrities tend to die in groups or clumps. Take for example, the sad situation during the summer of 2009. Taking a break from the spectacle of health care wars, Americans were preoccupied with ritual mourning. Within one week in June, many celebrities have died: Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson and Billy Mays. Suddenly we were all joined in collective mourning for people we did not know, were not friends with, may never have seen in person, and yet, we grieved for them and felt the loss of their presence keenly.
All of these people were artists, or at least they were “personalities;” but they were also “family.” They came into our homes for decades and suddenly they are gone. We thought we knew them. We gave ourselves the right to gossip about them and to discuss their private lives as though they were our best friends forever. Setting aside the particular abilities it takes to be a “second banana,” discussed by people far more eloquent than myself, and the talent it takes to sell the strange and unsellable, I am more interested in the deaths of individuals who touch us deeply and make us cry, like Michael Jackson and Princess Di. Full disclosure, I still have an old video of my personal taping of her funeral. Billy Jean is one of my favorite songs. I am well aware of the truths of these people, the unseemly and undignified details of their sad lives. But what interests me is why are we so impacted by their tragic and untimely deaths? Or is it their lives that are so resonate to us?
I always admired Michael Jackson. He struck me as someone who was blessed with a minor talent and parlayed it into major stardom. Most artists have only a minor talent, few are born with major talent, except for Picasso, who some call a “genius.” But genius is not something you are born with. Genius is something you make. Michael Jackson was a good singer and a talented dancer who created genius through his work. His greatness was that he became someone else, transcending his sad lost childhood of abuse. Michael Jackson became the “Gloved One.” Although Madonna (another genius) made Jackson’s crotch-grabbing seem tame, the downfall of Michael Jackson came when he revealed who he really was. What we loved was the persona and the performer of Thriller and the transformative music and dance of Beat It. The dark side was clearly evident, made even more explicit in his video performances, but his darkness came across as an artificial mask.
Michael Jackson’s performances were true works of genius, the result of years of creative endeavor. We were riveted. We sang his songs, we danced his dances (or tried), and generations of music fans all over the world adopted him, forgiving him of all his manifold sins. The tragedy of Michael Jackson is that we did not want him to be real. The other tragedy of Michael Jackson is that he did not want to be real. Already a success, a creative genius, he wanted to be something else, and on this long journey he drifted down a strange road. Alas, he is dead and we shall never know how he would have wanted his story to end. His story was his art.
What Princess Di and the Gloved One share is that they are makeovers or should I say, they were made-ups? We projected our fantasies upon them; we made them up. But they also transformed themselves. In Thriller, Michael Jackson literally danced with his demons and all lthe other dancers were in costume. What separates the Moonwalker from the Princess, I believe, is that Jackson sought, unwisely, to try to make himself more real than real. Unsatisfied with the “self” created by the Jackson Five, he attempted to fabricate a new identity that was completely his own. How else could all that bizarre plastic surgery be explained? The sad outcome was that he lost himself.
In contrast, Princess Diana was always in costume and, unlike Jackson, she was careful about not showing herself. She never broke with the Princess role, even when she was ousted as the Princess. Diana understood that she was the costume. Perhaps because women are socialized to always be on display and to perform a masquerade, it was easier for her to conflate the artificial with the real. This is what women do: we lose ourselves in the disguise. We become the masquerade. The irony of her story is that she was miscast in a story tale of a well-born Cinderella who married a very unwilling prince. Like all women, she was sold on romance novels of love and happiness ever after. Like all women, she could hardly think beyond the most beautiful wedding dress in the world, the ride in the golden coach, the handsome (well, plain) prince in a splendid uniform by her side. What could be better?
Once I had watched the wedding of the century on television and copied her hairstyle, I lost interest in the trials and tribulations of the tragic princess, forlorn and unloved. And then she died. To my surprise, I was grief stricken and sadden by the death of someone so full of courage. A work of art had died. As women, we are each our own greatest work of art. Any woman who loses touch with herself as a public persona loses her identity and her self-esteem. Contrary to theorists who insist that men lead public lives and women live private lives, the opposite is true. Men lead very active clandestine and protected private lives, while women are always on public display, being watched and being judged. Diana knew the secret—that femininity was a masquerade and she used this fact to her advantage. Charles made a tactical error. Her husband indulged himself in a private love affair. Far from being a sympathetic character—the poor man was forced to marry a woman he did not love—-the Prince lost control of his story and was revealed as a betrayer of his young wife and the helpless mother of his children who had sacrificed her youth for the Crown.
Far shrewder than the forces of Majesty, Diana honed her public image, carefully choosing each costume for maximum advantage. The rest of her life can be told in a series of photographs: the famous “John Travolta Dress” that allowed her to upstage the Prince, the red skirt with the purple jacket she wore at the monument to love, the Taj Mahal, telegraphing the end of her love story, the quasi-military outfit in the mine fields, and finally the one-piece swimsuit on Dodi Fayed’s yacht. We read her life through her costumes and saw that she was brave and courageous and insistent upon continuing her role as “Princess.” She was the most eligible woman in the world who unfortunately had terrible taste in men, but we were convinced that someday her Prince Would Come. He never did, but she was more fortunate than Elvis or MJ. Diana died young and beautiful at the peak of her powers. The masquerade was never allowed to slip. Beautiful, even in death, she created herself. Diana was her own best work of art.
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette
The Arts Blogger