We are Justin Bieber’s monkey: The terrifying psychodynamics of the monkey-bearing celebrity

justin-bieber-monkey.jpg

Sometimes a pet monkey isn’t just a pet monkey.

As Justin Bieber discovered last week when German officials confiscated his pet capuchin Mally for lack of appropriate documentation, the monkey-owning game is more complicated than it looks.

Whether the pop star ever wanted Mally seems arguable — the pet was a gift from record producer Mally Mall, for whom he is named. Given no choice, Bieber surrendered his monkey to the Germans and continued his tour of Europe. Given four weeks to retrieve little Mally from the lock-up Bieber has yet to make his monkey-owning intentions clear. He may simply leave Mally to the care of the Germans, at least some of whom have already declared their intention to give the capuchin a far more monkey-appropriate home, among other monkeys as opposed to fast-living, uneducated teenagers. And this may be the best possible news, not just for poor, paperless Mally, but also for Bieber, who seems to be the more imperiled of the two. By far.

Just past his 19th birthday Bieber has lately transformed himself from his earlier, tweenage dreamboat image to something older and stupider: A wealthy, tattooed prat whose main pursuit involves swan-diving fainto every celebrity sinkhole on the tabloid map. Missed shows; unforgivably late shows; public tantrums; embarrassing ejections from nightclubs; unexplained lapses of consciousness; endless Twitter screeds about the dreaded ‘hatas,’check, check, check, check, check and check.

Bieber’s a lot of things, but sophisticated isn’t one of them. For all that he can sing and dance, and possesses what seems to be a canny ear for hit songs and an eye for new talent he shows very little comprehension of who he is and what he’s trying to achieve. This is problem. For to be that successful at that age; to wield untold riches, glory and power at a point when his peers have yet to graduate high school; elevates Bieber to an Olympian height that amplifies every twitch and Tweet into a signifier for something bigger. “Worst birthday ever!” he informs the world, frowny icon attached, and tectonic plates shift.

Now, suddenly, comes a monkey. A baby capuchin (just 16 weeks old!) custom-ordered for the young demi-god with the world by the tail and no fucking idea what he wants out of it. The shiftless rich do this sort of thing all the time — see also the menageries belonging to the various Kardashians, Hiltons, etc. But in the hands of a true cultural phenomenon a monkey can be a very dangerous thins. Consider the most famous monkey owner in the history of popular culture.

When Michael Jackson introduced the world to his pet chimp Bubbles (not technically a monkey, but come on) he had the soft-eyed creature dressed as a smaller version of himself, bearing his furry double in his arms as if he were his own son.

Clearly, Michael knew what he was doing when he introduced a child figure into his iconography. No pop star could ever be more savvy to the symbolic power of his image than MJ, and for a long time he controlled public perceptions of himself with the confidence and focus of a magician. But the superstar was also the most valuable member of a showbiz family whose patriarch, Joseph, was as seethingly ambitious, relentlessly demanding and entirely fucked-up as a father could be. joe jLook at those lovely old films of the sweet, smiling Jackson 5 belting out “ABC” and “I Want You Back” and think about the glowering presence standing just offstage, toting up missed steps and ill-sung ‘ooohs’ for that night’s thrashings. Michael-Jackson-with-Bubb-001 To see the grown-up, world’s-most-popular-human Jackson grinning for the cameras with an often-identically dressed child who was actually a pet chimp portrayed the Jackson family drama (and particularly Michael’s devastation at the hands of his father) in the terms of a Freudian burlesque.

If Bubbles was meant to symbolize the lost innocence of the helpless Jackson 5-era Michael, then the grown-up, Bubbles-protecting Michael represented the caring, non-abusive father his own father never was. But then something disturbing happened: MJ became friendly with a child actor named Emmanuel Lewis, who had become famous portraying the title character of a sitcom called “Webster,” about a young orphan adopted by wealthier, whiter parents. The singer and the actor hit it off, and just that quickly Bubbles was gone, morphed into Lewis, who also seemed to enjoy riding MJ’s hip while being perfectly silent. jackson-lewis

But Emmanuel’s presence also invested Jackson’s psychodrama with disturbing new layers. For while he continued to alter his own facial structure, thereby removing all physical evidence of his connection to Joseph Jackson, Michael was now presenting himself as a new version of his father: the sire of a well-known child star, and one whose preternatural talent (the 13-year-old Lewis had a growth disorder that made him appear to be a kindergartner who just happened to speak like a middle-aged joke writer) that attracted money. As Bubbles had become Emmanuel, had Michael become a kind of Joseph? Oh, but Michael was all about innocence, right, so then came Neverland, and the private amusement park, and the sleepovers with other famous and non-famous kids and then the allegations….so many allegations. Bubbles never said a word about any of it.

Back in Germany Bieber’s Mally is holding up well. German PETA has been monitoring the capuchin’s care, and reports that it’s going remarkably well: Mally socializes easily with other capuchins and his human caregivers, too. Even if Bieber never calls or writes or returns to claim him, Mally is a high-profile capuchin who will do well in life. Meanwhile, though, Bieber has started posting snapshots of himself cradling Mally, and other shots of the 16-week-old capuchin sleeping with his tiny arms around a stuffed animal. “He’s just like a human!” Bieber commented. No, he’s just like a capuchin. You’re the human, Justin, and now it’s time for you to get your furry ass socialized.

2009 Favorites: Dancing In the Dark of 80s Nostalgia

(Another episode in our 2009 rewind, this one about an evening spent rewinding to the 1980’s…)

The guy we’re going to call LeBon calls just after 9 p.m. and says he’s running late. A family engagement ran long, now he’s in his car looking for a place to park. Hassles upon hassles. You know the drill.

He appears a few minutes later, moving full-tilt down the sidewalk, headed for the door to the Crystal Ballroom, eyes gleaming.
“Let’s go, chief,” he calls out, and doesn’t break stride as he skips through the door and up the stairs toward Lola’s, the dance hall on the second floor. He flashes his VIP card at the bouncer, is rewarded with a stamp on his wrist, and makes for the bar and a cold pint of beer. It’s still early, the crowd is thin, but he takes a gulp and looks extremely pleased.

“This,” LeBon declares, “is the place.”

If you know LeBon, and maybe you do, you’ve heard about Fridays at Lola’s. That’s the night the club devotes to the ” ’80s Video Dance Attack!,” a party for anyone who wants to groove to the sound and video wallpaper from MTV’s most golden era.

Madonna, Prince, Talking Heads, Whitney Houston, the Go-Go’s, the Human League, Michael Jackson and more. Big, echoing beats. Gel-sculpted hair and absurdly padded shoulders.

It sounds ridiculous. But it was an interesting decade, to say the least, and if you happened to be young then, it all made a kind of sense. Some of it really wasn’t bad, and some of it was actually quite good. For instance, the VJ/DJ behind the music and video selection turns up “Once in a Lifetime” by Talking Heads, and the cinema-sized screen fills with the image of David Byrne; all wide-open eyes and oversized suit, yammering about being behind the wheel of a large automobile and having no idea how he got there, let alone where he’s going.

LeBon drains his beer and makes for the dance floor. He’s a big guy, an ex-football player a few years beyond his last two-a-day practice. But he’s light on his feet and dives right into the rolling beat with athletic grace.

You may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife . . .

(Hit Read More in order to, well, what do you think?)


Funny how the passage of time changes the meaning of a song. LeBon is married now with kids in school, Little League baseball and spring soccer, too. Factor in his career in the federal government, his lawyer wife starting her own business and the ongoing basement-to-attic remodel of their house. Suddenly “Once in a Lifetime” sounds less abstract than it once did. Less nightmarish, too.

Letting the days go by/ letting the water hold me down . . .

Then the music gets lighter and sillier. Wang Chung popping around the screen, the singer looking oddly furrowed and concerned even as he urges the world to have fun and also to Wang Chung; then Modern English, then Michael Jackson (back when he looked happy and recognizably human) and Whitney Houston (same deal) and then Madonna, still looking naughty and prankish as she proclaims herself a Material Girl.

Now the dance floor is packed, and the temperature rises to sweat-factory level. Faces in the crowd trend toward the 30s and 40s, but a surprising number of young folks are here, too. One or two dress in vintage gear –spaghetti straps, leg warmers, “Miami Vice” pastels –but that seems like overkill. This isn’t a costume party. It’s not the least bit ironic. LeBon has been on the floor for more than hour, and his cheeks are aglow, his shirt open and darkening with his efforts.

Everyone has their way of reconnecting with the person that lives inside them. There’s yoga and meditation, running, golf and rock climbing. Some have their book clubs, others manage fantasy baseball teams or cultivate gardens.

But for LeBon and everyone else here, it’s this journey into the past. Call it nostalgia, call it a goof, call it straight-up goofy. But nothing’s about this is silly for LeBon. It’s not in the clothes, or the glossy videos or the frantic need to Wang Chung. It’s somewhere deeper than that, in the echoes of long-ago freedom and discovery; of the time in your life when the world seemed loud, shiny and weightless.

Same as it ever was? Not even. But for an evening, at least, it can almost feel like it.

"This Is It" – The Tragedy of Michael

Just spent a couple of hours watching “This is It” in the company of a dozen middle-schoolers, plus a 2nd-grader munching popcorn at my elbow. It’s a compelling document on Michael’s astonishing talent. And says virtually nothing about his devolution, unless you count those many close-ups of his freakish, pixie-like nose. One of the many glue-ons he had, I think, given how thoroughly destructed his real nose was after so many radical plastic surgeries.

This is a worn topic, perhaps, but it occurred to me to post – for anyone who might have missed it – this essay I did for The Oregonian the day after Michael died.

Michael Jackson: A deluded king beset by silent courtiers

By Peter Ames Carlin, The Oregonian

June 27, 2009, 5:36AM
Michael Jackson in 2007.

Analysis

You could see it in his face.

In the shape of his ever-changing nose. In the lightening of his flesh. In the artificially etched brows and surgically dimpled chin. And particularly in the surgical masks and sunglasses he wore to shield the inner part that could not be altered with a scalpel.

He’d spent his life in the spotlight. And it was killing him.


Follow the jump for the rest….

The signs were everywhere. In the quasi-military garb he liked to wear. In the estate he turned into a personal amusement park and renamed Neverland. In the years when his most constant companion was a chimp named Bubbles. And when his enthusiasm for the company of children devolved into charges of sexual abuse (one of which ended in a not-guilty verdict; the other he settled out of court for the suspiciously large sum of $20 million).

Artist Jeff Koons’ wax sculpture of Michael Jackson and his chimp Bubbles sits on display in Versailles, France, in 2008.

What seemed evident was that the man had lost his grip on reality. But now he was far too successful, and thus powerful, for anyone to pull him back to Earth.

Is it even surprising that such a man would die at only 50? Or is it even more of a shock to realize he had made it that long?

Elvis Presley, the last pop singer to be called a king, ended his earthly reign at 42. Judy Garland, another child star who rose even higher as an adult, died at 47.

Overwhelming fame and success may seem like a glamorous job. But make no mistake: The tidal wave of acclaim comes with a deadly undertow.

For Michael Jackson, the deathly process began almost from the moment he was born.

The Jackson 5: Michael (front right), Marlon (front left), Tito (back left), Jackie and Jermaine (back right).

His father, Joseph Jackson, was a blue-collar worker and aspiring impresario who had already started drilling his older boys in the art of singing and dancing. When 5-year-old Michael revealed talents that far outstripped the others, he quickly became the focus of the act. He was only 11 when the Jackson 5 first appeared on national television, and it was only months before the family group had its first chart-topping hit.

Dozens more followed during the early 1970s, along with the requisite concert tours, TV appearances, Saturday morning cartoons and all the adulation that greets anyone who catapults into the upper reaches of celebrity.

All these idealized children were missing was anything resembling a normal childhood. As the group’s multifaceted linchpin, the pre-adolescent Jackson could only imagine what a real life might offer.

“I remember going to the recording studio, and there was a park across the street and I’d see all the children playing,” he recalled later. “I would cry because it made me sad that I would have to work instead.”

The Jackson brothers eventually wrested control of their careers from their father. But even as Michael struck out on his own, becoming the world’s most beloved pop performer, the shadow of his stolen innocence became an increasingly palpable presence.

Consider the amusement park he built in his backyard.

But then it was too late. “Thriller” had sold a gazillion copies. He anointed himself the King of Pop, and no one was tempted to argue the point, let alone talk him out of visiting the president of the United States accompanied by his chimp.

He had already started rebuilding his face, losing virtually every trace of his racial and family inheritance in favor of a kind of alabaster mask. While he would continue to make music through the ’90s and into the 21st century, and remained the object of much curiosity and adulation, it was impossible to see his face or his gaunt frame and often-fragile countenance and not sense the tragedy that was unfolding.

Michael Jackson and then-wife Lisa Marie Presley visit Versailles, near Paris, in 1994.

Nothing about him seemed remotely normal. Not his increasingly dark lyrics. Not the grandiose poses that came to resemble the iconography of a fascist dictator. Certainly not his fixation on small children and the charges that followed. Not his stuntlike marriage to Lisa Marie Presley. Nor the second marriage toDebbie Rowe, a nurse who bore his children, only to depart to places unknown, leaving her ex-husband with full custody of their offspring in exchange for who knew what percentage of his fortune.

The entertainment-media industrial complex relished it all, knowing full well that there would be at least as much juice in Jackson’s downfall as there had been in his glory years. So no matter how strange his life became, the voices that should have called him back to Earth remained silent.

It was the same silence that allowed Elvis Presley to gorge himself on food and pills. The same silence that surrounded a teenage Britney Spears when her much-publicized innocence gave way to insobriety, pregnancies, marriages and divorces. The same silence that accompanied the lightning rise and just as speedy emotional collapse of “Britain’s Got Talent” contestant Susan Boyle.

What all these stories have in common, along with the perpetually troubled if surprisingly resilient likes of Jackson pals Liza Minnelli and Elizabeth Taylor, is the toxic cocktail of personal dysfunction, widespread fame and corporate opportunity. As long as the machinery keeps churning, as long as the money rolls in, as long as the star continues to shine, no one will be motivated to ask questions.

Let alone supply the one answer they need the most: No.

Instead, silence. Right up until Jackson was dead, which was when stories began circulating that the singer had been given a large injection of the painkiller Demerol moments before he collapsed. A Jackson family attorney stormed out of the hospital seething about the “enablers” who had surrounded Michael. “If you think the case of Anna Nicole Smith was an abuse,” he told CNN, “it’s nothing in comparison.”

The hangers-on were only getting started. By the end of the afternoon someone had circulated, and sold to “Entertainment Tonight,” a macabre photograph of the stricken Jackson being hoisted into an ambulance. EXCLUSIVE LAST PHOTO, the show’s Web site boasted.

Jackson’s songs topped online sales charts all around the world by the end of the day, and among the morning headlines was talk of a vast store of unreleased music — 100 songs, it was rumored — now bound for posthumous release.

When the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll died in 1977, his manager, Col. Tom Parker, responded immediately: Nothing had changed. The Elvis business would continue.

Now Presley’s temporary son-in-law, the self-proclaimed King of Pop, has met the same fate. An early death, then an eternity of merchandise.