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What would Umberto Eco think of a Michael Jackson ‘Tribute Show’?

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Umberto Eco’s 1985 essay that was the centrepiece of his book, Faith in Fakes, asked questions about why United States “culture” is so big on what he called “hyper-reality”, in particular the huge popularity of simulated experiences in theme parks.

What the great Italian semiotician would have thought of the so-called “tribute show” we can only imagine, but it’s certainly a phenomenon that even the most sanguine cultural commentator must find puzzling.

Does the audience head into a concert which re-enacts the greatest hits of a celebrity singer ready to critically appraise the simulacrum? Or do they leave reality at the door, willing to believe that the star is reborn and before them on stage?

If it’s the latter, you’d have to think there’s a bit of conflict, except in the true believers, when it comes to the impending tour of the ‘Michael Jackson Live Concert Experience: 10thAnniversary ‘Remember the Time’ tour.

TJ Cappola is a Michael Jackson impersonator, and the notes for his show say that his concert is a “tribute … in memory of his idol”.

“TJ’s performance embodies the character, vocals and persona of Michael Jackson to perfection,” the show promises.

It’s the turning away, the power of celebrity and the collusion by ignorance that makes reprehensible behaviour possible.

It doesn’t seem necessary to point out that this character and persona have been challenged in alarming fashion since the documentary Leaving Neverland was aired.

The music, it’s true, hasn’t changed, and if people do love listening to that, and are keen to hear the songs performed, then TJ Cappola is doing those people a service.

I’m not calling for a ban on this show, not wanting to stand at the door holding a placard or anything noisy like that. But a conversation around the issues raised by accusations and revelations of what Oprah Winfrey called “a scourge on humanity” is the least we can do in response. It’s the turning away, the power of celebrity and the collusion by ignorance that makes reprehensible behaviours possible.

We do seem to be at a kind of crossroads, where faith in fakes has become not just a personal choice but a societal shaper.

By all means, if you want to suspend disbelief, buy a ticket, and sit through a concert of someone dressed like Michael Jackson, moving on stage like Michael Jackson, and trying to sing like Michael Jackson. That’s a personal choice. A tricky personal choice, because it requires you to say to yourself that it’s possible to separate the “persona” and “character” of the performed from the performer.

Should we ban the music of Wagner? Do we take Donald Friend’s art out of galleries?

For a community, the separation is more challenging, and indeed, there’s often a punitive lack of forgiveness in social judgements. Should we ban the music of Wagner? Do we take Donald Friend’s art out of galleries? You’ll think of dozens of other examples, and each one elicits opinions that sort of go no where.

They are worth having, however, because they ensure that, as a community, we are airing debate which hopefully means we are making sure debate remains a strong, valued part of our society. Hong Kong has just put those who want the freedom to debate in jail, so we do need to protect that carefully at this stage in the world’s history.

So, if Michael Jackson Live is welcomed by theatre-goers as unproblematic, so be it. On the other hand, I would like to think that venues where the show is running have at the very least had a discussion about issues that such a performance raises. Just because something is just entertainment is no reason for us to ignore it.

A personal addendum: I tried this out myself, mentioning to a few people that a Michael Jackson tribute show might now have become problematic. After the first few responses – which were stonily uninterested and impatient, “I still like the music, whatever you think about the man” kind of thing – I felt myself retracting like a snail inside a shell, horns first, then head withdrawing to the quiet comfort of my own space.

Then, hooray, someone whose opinion I value said in response, of course it’s problematic. You’d think that would be obvious.

3 responses to “What would Umberto Eco think of a Michael Jackson ‘Tribute Show’?

  1. What a waste of an article… MJ was accused in a FILM, it’s not like he was found guilty in a court of law. And I don’t see any real evidence coming out supporting the accusers, just the opposite. Yet, journalists (who fail to use the word “allegedly”) keep pushing this “MJ is soo morally unacceptable – because of an accusation? – and we soooo have to separate the man and the music to save are little souls”. Why dragging Umberto Eco into this? His intelligence won’t lend these types of articles any kind of legitimacy.

  2. Rosemary Sorensen,

    Stop playing judge and jury. an accusation is not a conviction. more so, MJ has been trialed in court after being investigated for over 10 years by the FBI, and has been found NOT GUILTY.

    I know you are still trying to save face after being dissapointed that MJ wasn’t crucified by the public for an accusation from perjurers.

  3. always trying to save face Ms. Sorenson.

    Michael is INNOCENT. that mockumentary is dead on arrival.

    stop stigmatizing tribute artists.

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