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Send in the clowns
The wacky worlds of Michael Jackson and Ozzy Osbourne

The New York Post got to resurrect its priceless "Wacko Jacko" headline. Barbara Walters scored Super Bowl-level ratings without having to lift a pretty little finger. And Michael Jackson, well, no matter how you slice it, he got screwed royally. That’s how they do it in Britain. His first mistake was to give journalist Martin Bashir access to his inner sancta — to his playground-style home, to the floor of a Las Vegas hotel that he’d rented out, to a day out with the kids (three of them) at the zoo. After all these years as a celebrity, Michael Jackson still hasn’t picked up the most basic aspects of dealing with the public. He’s clueless when it comes to gauging how his smallest actions will be interpreted once they’ve been writ large across the headlines of the world. And he seems unaware that behind the masses of adoring kids who scream for hugs and autographs wherever he turns up, there’s a much larger mass of people who are repelled by him and everything he’s come to represent.

If Jackson hoped to find allies by submitting to a lengthy televised interview, he failed utterly. There will be a few people — myself among them — who feel sorrier for him than they did a few weeks ago. But as soon as someone mentions the millions of dollars he’s got in the bank, that pity melts away, and you’re left no longer caring what happens to Se–or Wacko — especially when he’s put in the context of Iraq and North Korea.

His attorneys are, of course, claiming that it was all — the entire two hours of it — taken out of context. And maybe some of it was. But no amount of backtracking is going to undo the harm the Walters special did to his image. The shot of Michael nervously feeding his youngest kid, fumbling around in front of the camera as if not quite sure where the nipple goes. The hyperactive swing through his "favorite store" — that swanky and heroically tacky Vegas boutique full of million-dollar art objects that Michael apparently owns half of already. That moment at the zoo when he complained to his handlers that his daughter was holding his hand too tightly. The open admission that he spends a large amount of time playing and even napping with school-age children. And the straight-faced denials that he’s had any kind of cosmetic surgery except, when he was pressed, two rhinoplasties that were "necessary" to improve his vocal range. Yeah, and I bought that penis enlarger so my underwear would fit better.

The controversies have only just begun. There will be court battles and countersuits, and tonight (February 20) at 8 p.m., Fox will air Jackson’s two-hour rebuttal to Bashir, Michael Jackson Take 2: The Interview They Wouldn’t Show You. But the damage has already been done. We all now know what many of us had already suspected: there’s something very, very wrong with Michael Jackson. And I’m not sure he’ll ever be able to sing and dance his way out of this one.

Yet there is one issue that’s been overlooked in the wake of his public humiliation, and that’s the allegation that he’s slowly been changing his appearance over the years in order to look more "white." Given the evidence — lighter skin tone, a cleft chin, and that once broad Afro-American nose cut down to the kind of dainty, diminutive, upturned little nugget all those pretty little Lacoste-wearing WASPy girls seemed to have in junior high — it made a certain sense. But white-envy isn’t Jacko’s pathology — as he enters his fifth decade, it’s clear that he’s no race traitor. After all, he grew up in an era when white-music moguls had lost their hold on the African-American stars who’d been their bread and butter since the jazz age. Black stars were coming into their own in the ’70s, and they were learning to retain their song rights and keep as much of the money they generated as they could. By the time Michael came of age as a star, there were just as many white as black performers getting screwed by the man.

No, Jackson’s surgical procedures seem to have been aimed at allowing him to maintain the face of a child. Because what he had to deal with was not overt racism but allegations of questionable dealings among his own family and his parents when it came to managing his money. Add to that the wall of yes-men and yes-women that was erected around the Jackson Five and then the solo Michael Jackson and you have the makings of an adult who’s always been treated like a child, and who’d rather spend his free time with the only people he feels he can trust — children.

Most psychologists will hold that as wacko as Jacko may be, he doesn’t fit the profile of a pedophile. No, his is a Peter Pan complex, and it’s getting harder and harder to watch as he gets older and older and that facial stubble looks more and more fungal. Those children he invited over to romp around the playground he’s built in his backyard are his friends, and that’s sad. It’s also potentially damaging, because children do need positive adult role models to foster healthy development, and Jackson doesn’t qualify. If I had kids, I wouldn’t want them spending their afternoons at the Jackson compound — not for fear of molestation but because he’s a severe casualty of childhood pop stardom, with all the attending pathologies.

The pop universe is full of such victims, some of whom didn’t even hit the big time until they were at least young adults. Two weekends ago, MTV gave us an amusing, in-depth look at one of the more notorious and successful rock-and-roll casualties currently working the system: Ozzy Osbourne. After spending a couple of decades playing Antichrist, first as the leader of Black Sabbath and then as a successful solo artist in the ’80s, Osbourne has ingested enough drugs and alcohol to make even simple acts like forming two-and three-syllable words difficult. It also appears he appears he can’t construct a sentence without dropping half a dozen f-bombs. But that’s all part of what makes The Osbournes, a reality-based sit-com that takes you inside the home of Ozzy and his family, such a guilty pleasure. It amounts to a sort of a live-action Simpsons, with Ozzy as Homer in the role of the dumb but ultimately well-meaning dad; Sharon as Marge, in the role of the stern, well-bred, clear-spoken authority figure; the pair’s older, goofy prodigal son with the questionable A&R job as Bart; and Kelly, the ambitious, amusing daughter with a budding musical career, as Lisa.

The best thing about The Osbournes — unlike The Jacksons — is that nobody gets hurt. Sharon’s the brains of the operation, and she seems aware that most of the world — not counting the people who line up to buy front-row seats for the yearly OzzFest — see her husband as a walking joke. Yeah, and she’s laughing all the way to the bank. If Ozzy’s even half aware of what all those cameras are doing in his house, he doesn’t show it. This is a guy who appeared befuddled last season as he sat and watched himself perform on television. And after being mystified by an episode of the Food Network’s Two Fat Ladies, all he could muster by way of explanation was, "They’re bakin’ fooking bread on the television."

Yet Ozzy too has been embroiled in controversy. In his case, however, it was Pepsi, the multinational soft-drink corporation, that stepped in it. It all started when Pepsi decided not to use a commercial featuring the aggressive and potentially controversial rapper Ludacris. Since it’s likely Pepsi had an escape clause in its contract with the rapper, that decision didn’t cause any flak. But when Pepsi subsequently opted to make Ozzy the star of a high-profile ad, the Johnnie Cochrans of the world cried foul. After all, if a former antichrist who once bit the head off a bat can be a legit Pepsi spokesperson, then what the hell is wrong with Ludacris? Ozzy may have cleaned up his act in recent years, but every sentence he says on TV still sounds like a bus backing up — and he knows the cameras are rolling. So when a group called the Hip-Hop Action Summit threatened to organize a boycott, the corporation made nice and agreed to pay reparations to the Ludacris Foundation.

Which is all well and good except for one uncomfortable question that I can’t shake: was there really any racism involved in Pepsi’s decision to go with Ozzy instead of Ludacris? Was race any more of an issue here than it is in the case of Michael Jackson’s surgery? Or was it just an example of the racial cardsharps playing their hand before they had all the facts? Let’s face it: Ozzy Osbourne got the Pepsi gig because nobody takes him seriously anymore. He’s as harmless as a dotty old uncle. He’s Benny Hill with a sketchy past. And he doesn’t have anything controversial or even meaningful to say. Ludacris, on the other hand, is a serious rapper with a message that might make some folks — okay, mostly white folks — uncomfortable. And the Pepsi people have every right to pick spokespeople they feel will offend the fewest cola drinkers. It doesn’t take a marketing genius to figure that Ozzy is the more suitable salesman.

The beauty of it all is that there probably wasn’t a single Pepsi executive who could have picked Ludacris or Osbourne out of a line-up before this controversy went down. In fact, they’d probably have assumed a guy named Ludacris was the Satanic rocker. This is one case where skin color turned out to be incidental. White or black, Ludacris was never going to make the Pepsi cut, because he’s a man with a message. After all, Pepsi didn’t have any trouble hiring Michael Jackson back when he looked black. The sad truth is that in today’s content-free television, a message is more dangerous than the color of person’s skin. Now if the NFL could only hire a few more African-American head coaches . . . I wonder whether Ludacris is looking for a new gig?

Issue Date: February 20 - 27, 2003
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