Dec 062003

These are my first words about Michael Jackson, and I promise they will be my last. What interests me about Michael is not Michael himself, whose habits and daily life are so far outside the realm of ordinary human concerns that the word “eccentric,” implying that he might still be in orbit with the rest of the solar system, no longer applies. It’s the parents of Michael’s little friends who interest me: what could possess them to send their children off to consort with him in Neverland? It can’t be the money — most of them were quite well-off — so it has to be the fame. These wretched people want to be near Michael. They want to talk to him, to ride in his private plane, to be sprinkled with a bit of that magic celebrity pixie dust.

And what exactly is that pixie dust? Let’s channel Tyler Cowen here and consider this in economic terms.

Everyone craves distinction, identity, that special something that sets one apart from, that makes one better than, the neighbors. Distinction, by its nature, must be scarce, or it isn’t distinct any more, and scarce goods in America are increasingly difficult to find. Distinguishing yourself in your profession is one possibility, but that’s a lot of work, and even if you succeed you’re likely to be appreciated only by your colleagues. The Joneses won’t give a damn.

Mere money-making is out. In America, where the plumber makes more than you do and movers take Caribbean vacations, money is no longer a mark of distinction: it is common, in every sense. From this observation Paul Fussell derived a whole book, the horribly snobbish but amusing Class, and Tom Wolfe the better half of a career.

To replace money Wolfe and Fussell proposed taste. Not real taste of course, in the sense of cultivating a well-honed appreciation for some field of endeavor — like professional distinction, that’s hard work, and unlikely to be widely admired. No, Fussell and Wolfe meant taste as fashion, knowing what to listen to, to read, to wear, and to eat. This worked for a while but eventually everyone wised up. There is an episode of Cheers in which Woody’s father wants him to leave his Boston bartending job and come back to the farm in Indiana. The pseud waitress, Diane, makes a movie to persuade Mr. Boyd to let Woody stay and sends it to him. She asks Woody how his father liked it. Woody says, “He liked it all right, but he thought it was too derivative of late Godard.”

Fame at its most rarefied, when one is known by a single name, always has been and always will be scarce. Michael Jackson has been famous this way for thirty-five years and his pal Elizabeth Taylor has been famous for sixty. Even Warhol’s famous aphorism, wrong as it was, implies that there will never be enough fame to go around. Fame is the last universal currency. It collateralizes loans for Donald Trump; it buys a bully pulpit for Rosie O’Donnell and literary influence for Oprah Winfrey. It secures the best table in the restaurant, no reservation required. In an age of almost unimaginable abundance, celebrity is the last scarce good. Is it any wonder that people pursue it, and proximity to it, so assiduously?

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