Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Price of Fame

This past weekend, I read plenty of articles on the Huffington Post about Michael Jackson's death as well as remembrances by Deepak and his son Gotham Chopra, and others. There was one lengthy article from a British newspaper that was particularly revealing. The journalist who wrote that article claims that greedy bankers are the primary ones to blame for Michael Jackson's death. The article was pretty fair in its assessment of Michael Jackson (not glossing over his dark side). The descriptions fit what we pretty much know about the singer: after his 2003 molestation trial and acquittal, he pretty much was a broken man. He left the country to be a guest with a wealthy Arab from Bahrain, who ended up suing Michael Jackson for living expenses (Michael claimed that he believed the offer was a gift).

Anyone who has seen Martin Bashir's damning documentary on the superstar can well remember the scene of Michael in an expensive store in Las Vegas after hours, pointing at objects he wanted to buy. It was shocking in its extravagence and taste. Why would he want stuff like that? That was a major problem for him. His lifestyle simply became too expensive to maintain and he wasn't selling music like he was in the 1980s. Not only did he buy a lot of expensive and unnecessary baubles to fill his mansions, he would rent entire floors in Las Vegas casinos, despite his having a Neverland Ranch to maintain (with the assorted employees and security details, not to mention amusement park operations).

It has been known for years that Michael Jackson was in serious financial trouble. And the trouble with being so super-wealthy with mega-mansions galore is that they are notoriously hard to sell because very few people could afford what he might be asking for.

According to the article, financiers who are trying to deal with Jackson's debt came up with a plan to have a series of 50 concerts at London's O2 Arena starting in July and running through March 2010. Jackson apparently claimed to have agreed to 10, but was pushed into accepting 50. The journalist found this baffling as it was common knowledge that Jackson has been sick for sometime and could no longer sing. That wasn't a problem, because the high tech stadium was equipped for lip synching. All Michael had to do was dance and people would pay hundreds of dollars to see one of his last shows. The concerts were to be called "This Is It." How prophetic!

Getting back into shape and rehearsing the show proved too much for him. He was in a lot of pain and had to use a variety of drugs daily just to cope. There is speculation that Jackson knew his talent was gone and he didn't want to expose that fact to his fans, so death might have been a blessing for him. However, I think there ought to be investigations into the entire deal that was set up. Who was involved? What did they know? What was their intent?

I've read some comments online by people discussing that article and it was interesting to read some ideas thrown around. Basically, many people don't seem surprised at the way music execs behave. Its all about their greed and Michael was their Goose who laid the golden eggs. It wouldn't surprise me if someone who arranged this deal knew that having to perform these concerts would eventually kill Michael Jackson, who will still make money in death. Because of the amount of money the record company will earn on sales of his music, at least now they won't have a high spending Michael Jackson to pay. More money for them! Well...if it is true that greedy people pushed Michael into accepting this performance gig in the hopes that he would die so that they can have his assets for themselves, they might be the ones who will be in danger of going to hell someday. It is wrong to leach off of a talented artist like that.

Michael Jackson is not the only person who was screwed out of what's rightfully his. In the 1990s, Prince went through the same thing of wanting the freedom to create his own music and reap most of the profits. George Michael and Madonna also had the same fight with their record companies. This past weekend, I watched Great Balls of Fire for the first time in 20 years. I forgot about how good it was (I love biopics, what can I say?). Even Jerry Lee Lewis and many of his musical peers from that era of rock n' roll's beginning were ripped off by their record companies. Is it right that some no-talent business person gets so much of the creative artist's earnings? Don't they realize what leeches they are?

Its funny that many people desire fame, especially in today's "reality" show environment. There's a huge cost to fame that many don't consider. In Gotham Chopra's essay about his friendship with the King of Pop, he said that Michael seemed to envy his easy ability to hang out with his friends in public without strangers and fans noticing him. Another article I read indicated that Michael spent his entire life trying to recreate a normal childhood for himself and the author reflected on the irony of that. It kind of makes you think of Citizen Kane and the mystery surrounding "Rosebud." They have anything they desire, yet its not enough. Sometimes, the simplest thing matters the most.

During the 2003 molestation trial, a few of us would talk about it at work. When I made critical comments about Michael, one lady would always defend him and claim that I was jealous of Michael Jackson. Jealous? I nearly laughed. She did not know me at all. There is no way in hell that I'd want his fame. His whole life testifies to a deep-rooted unhappiness that all the money and fame in the world could not solve. There is something to be said about living a normal life.

In honesty, though, there was a time when I did want to be famous. Back in high school, I often thought of fame as a fantasy game. I saw it as a solution to not being part of the "in" crowd or being rejected for dates. Fame would be a perfect revenge. A look at me now kind of thing to show all those who were mean or indifferent that they made a huge mistake not being friends with me. Yes, at that time, I did desire to be famous one day. Then something happened. I graduated high school. The shallow superficial people were out of my life. And I did my own thing and racked up some amazing experiences in my young adulthood.

I even got a taste of fame. Granted, it was very small, but it was enough. When I lived in La Maddalena, Sardinia, I happened to be assigned to Submarine Squadron 22. I was actually part of ship's company (the USS ORION), but because they needed a Yeoman and I happened to be arriving to the ship as the Squadron's Command Master Chief was heading out for an evening on the town, it was serendipitous luck. However, it came at a cost. One Yeoman was already set to be assigned to Squadron but because I had arrived, it didn't make sense to have to train me while he would be trained in Squadron. I think he hated me for taking his job, but it wasn't like I knew the difference between the two commands. I'd learn soon enough. To this day, Squadron 22 is the best place I've ever worked. I mostly worked with Chief Petty Officers and Officers. Only a few E-6 and below worked there. I think we could all be counted on one hand.

Because of my job, I was well known among the Americans who lived in La Maddalena. I think the town had 13,000 Italian residents and 2,000 American servicemembers (not sure how many additional Americans in terms of dependents). So, my fame was limited to the 2,000 member community. Anyhow, I couldn't go anywhere without people knowing who I was and where I worked. It proved embarrassing when I didn't know the person's name or where he worked, yet he knew a lot about me. When the next ship replaced the ORION, it had a crew made up of 30% females. So, my fame continued, but this time, every woman I went out with would be noticed and talked about. I did not like being subjected to this kind of scrutiny, where people knew what I did and who I did it with. I learned that I liked being anonymous.

There were moments when I felt like a celebrity, such as in Alexandria, Egypt when a young kid attached himself to me during my 3 hour walk around town looking for cool souvenirs. I would mention wanting something (a prayer carpet, a robe, sandals, hieroglyphics on papyrus) and it would appear instantaneous. I guess it was a lot like Michael Jackson's point and spend manner of shopping. But, the kid wasn't interested in me as a person. Just me as an ATM machine. That's what people who seek fame don't understand. Yes, its nice sometimes to be noticed for who you are, but famous people generally aren't noticed by fans for who they really are. Its an image or brand that the fan has in his or her mind. If you don't live up to their expectations, you end up dealing with some angry people. Who wants that?

In the downside to fame, I saw it up close and personal in D.C. A lot of mentally ill people hang out near the Capitol and harass members of Congress every day with their weird requests. I hated dealing with them in the phone calls Vice President Gore's legislative affairs office used to get from crazy folks who made unreasonable demands.

It's no wonder that fame made Michael Jackson very paranoid. You simply don't know who to trust because everyone wants you for some reason or another. Very few want your friendship without attachments or expectations.

So, I consider myself blessed that I got to experience fame on a minimal basis. It satisfied the urge and made me understand the larger implications. Besides not desiring fame any more, I also learned that part of the reason I desired fame was to be able to get things easier or to meet people who are famous that I happen to like. What I learned was that I was able to experience all that without having to be famous. I've met plenty of the famous people I had been wanting to meet and I have been able to experience a lot of the things I wanted to experience. I've traveled to many places and I've met plenty of "star quality" people who aren't famous.

Truly, life is enjoyable as a nobody. The fame thing is a bad illusion. It attracts the wrong people into your life and for some famous people, they need a security detail to protect them from the crazies out there (like Mark David Chapman, who killed John Lennon because he believed himself to be the real John Lennon). Nope. I don't envy famous people at all. The biggest trade-off fame requires is personal freedom. I'm all about my personal freedom. I wouldn't trade it for anything.

Below is an interesting picture of Michael Jackson. Even heavily disguised, you can tell its him. He's such an odd person with all the disguises. But, considering how horrible his face became over the years with the endless plastic surgeries, its not surprising that he would want to hide it. Hopefully, in the spiritual realm, he's finally free to be himself as he envisions his ideal reality. I can even imagine that the souls in heaven are in for a special treat. They will get to hear him give a concert, if such things exist in the spiritual realm. That would be an awesome site to behold.

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