Never Can Say Goodbye
Can Michael Jackson stop being a freak to save his life?
Following the Michael Jackson trial is not an enterprise for the weak of stomach. For those who eschew cable TV and tabloids, or avoid the European and Asian newspapers—which treat this as legitimate front-page news—details about this case are hazy: Jackson stands accused of 10 felony counts—including molesting a 13-year-old cancer patient—while Jackson counters that this child's mother is a deranged fortune hunter who in the past has set her kids up for shakedowns at J.C. Penney. You may vaguely know that jury selection began this week in the small coastal town of Santa Maria, Calif., and that Santa Barbara District Attorney Tom Sneddon is embroiled in the grudge match of his life—having been thwarted in a remarkably similar sex prosecution in 1993, after Jackson settled with his young accuser for an alleged $20 million.
Oh, but what you don't know would astound you. Rumors are swirling, for instance, that one of two former child stars—Macaulay Culkin or Corey Feldman—may testify at trial. As will the British filmmaker who made the inflammatory 2003 documentary in which Jackson was seen holding the hand of his accuser and saying, "Why can't you share your bed? That's the most loving thing to do is share your bed with someone." Or that Deborah Rowe, the plastic surgeon's nurse to whom Jackson was briefly married, signed a multimillion dollar settlement in 1999, agreeing never to see or contact the two children—Prince Michael I and Paris—she bore him, and that she is going to testify as well.
No. Being sickened by the scandals and spectacles of the Michael Jackson trial can be a full-time proposition.
So much about this trial is strange and disturbing and freakish that you might think someone in Jackson's seemingly endless coterie of hangers-on—perhaps the fat man who carries his umbrella—would whisper to him that he'd be well-served over the next few months by just attempting to be normal. The old "I'm weird" defense doesn't succeed very often, after all, and it's highly unlikely to succeed with a jury pool that apparently consists largely of middle class retirees with military backgrounds.
Just ask some of the inmates in the Weird Defendants Hall of Fame: Courtney Love showed up five hours late for a June hearing over charges that she went after a concert fan with a microphone stand. She had to be silenced as she handed out cigarettes and chatted loudly with another defendant who was handcuffed to the bench. At a more recent proceeding in the same matter she refused to stand in a security line. Just ask Winona Ryder and Mike Tyson and John Allen Muhammad how well the "I'm just really strange" defense works. As a general matter, defendants who ask the judge or jury to believe that they are just too odd to conform to the world's moral and legal constraints, log a lot of jail time—or time in the electric chair—for their pains.
Enter Michael Jackson, with the surgeries and the personal zoo and the all-boy slumber parties; a man who defies every classification system know to man, living as he does at the interstices of male and female, black and white, man and boy. Why has no one leaned over and murmured in his reconstructed ear that he should maybe tone it down for the coming weeks? His life, either as a free man or as a pop icon, is at stake after all.
No one is suggesting that Jackson wear a pinstripe suit, or trim his Jacqueline Kennedy bob, or even scrub off Joan Crawford's eyebrows. That mask is all that is left of him for one thing. And Jackson probably worries more about tarnishing that image than about spending a few years in jail. But as Robin Givhan of the Washington Post points out today, there is a long distance between a coat-and-tie and the Fantasy Island suits and jeweled waistcoats of this past week. It's a far cry from sitting soberly at counsel table, à la O.J. Simpson, to moonwalking on a car outside the courthouse.
Givhan and others have suggested that since Jackson may indeed be far too freaky to be measured by normal human standards, playing up that very strangeness may be his best bet. Don't ask jurors to understand him. Just ask that they revere him. But is it really going to work in this case? Is a trial about whether or not a man can control himself around children best presented by showing a man who can't control his public behavior or image? If ever there was an opportune moment for Jackson to manifest some understanding that he resides in the real world and understands its rules, one would think this would be that moment. And that should mean wearing a tie and taking this proceeding seriously.
In a column remembering Philip Johnson this week, Anne Applebaum suggested that sometimes eccentrics and aesthetes get a free pass to behave terribly (in Johnson's case it was consorting with fascists as opposed to small boys), whereas other public, political figures are held to unflinching account. She suggests that some creative types manage to immunize themselves against shocking behavior by arguing that it's necessary to being "a trendsetter, a provocateur and—most tantalizingly—an enigma."
Perhaps what's going to be on trial in the coming months, then, is the very notion that true artists can be bound by the rule of law. We love them precisely because they have no respect for what is proper and can't control themselves, even if they see these simple black-and-white distinctions in the first place. No one believed it was possible to walk both forward and backward at the same time until Michael Jackson came along. That was his genius. If he exploded the laws of sound and motion to the world's delight, perhaps a jury truly won't hold him to the law of man either.
Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.
Photograph of Michael Jackson on Slate's home page by Aaron Lambert-Pool/Getty Images.