What is it about shitty, astonishingly overvalued celebrities when they go horribly, horribly wrong? I’m speaking, of course, of Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston, two magazine-and-MTV-baked souffles that have had the oven door slammed open on them hard over the past decade.

I’ve always found both of them (along with Celine Dion, perhaps) to be the dullest of the prefab, but what makes it worse is that they seem to have no fucking idea!. Jackson in particular seems to labor under the delusion that he’s an artist, or artiste, or the king of something or other. If he had an ounce of insight in that empty head of his, he would’ve packed up his riches and bewildering public approval and done a Howard Hughes long ago. Instead, he keeps haplessly clawing his way into the ever less flattering spotlight. People have finally seen that the emperor has no clothes, and the disgracefulness and final garishness of the entire situation is instructively engaging.

The most interesting pop culture moment Michael Jackson was ever involved in? Nope, not the moonwalk. No, not those big-fish/small-pond, supposedly “great” videos he made. Give up? It was when Jarvis Cocker, true pop royalty, disrupted Jackson’s meretricious showboating at the Brit awards a few years back. You won’t see that on American TV! Luckily, some of us still know how to pay attention to things other than what’s shoved into our faces.

His glaring cultural irrelevancy and insufficiency aside and for reasons apparently beyond Jackson’s control, he has become a little bit fascinating, a little bit subversive, by vomiting our grindingly benign culture’s sexual repression and hypocrisy back at it. I’m not going to get into the whole racial aspect, which is beside the point. But for America (and the entire civilized world) to turn this sexless, harmless, personality-less creation into an icon, only to have those very qualities fester and backfire before their very eyes, well... When the public finally gets what they’ve been asking for, just begging for, for so long, it’s no time to be shy about laughing and pointing at them, wishing them better luck next time before turning your back on them to listen to your Smiths albums.

If only Jackson hadn’t avoided every opportunity to climb down off the altar of celebrity, if only he’d balked even once at the fame-groveling that was foisted on him by sick parents, if only he’d had a little fun with it or seen it for the absurdity it is, I might find it possible to feel a little bit sorry for him and his sacrificial lambdom.

Houston’s scandals aren’t so sweeping, but her recent religious mania intrigues me. I can’t stand her music or that of her sonic heir, Mariah Carey, to whose dog-whistle vocalizing so many people seem curiously drawn... Whenever I hear anyone say in reference to either of their voices, “Oh, what a beautiful instrument she has,” I feel like replying, “Yes, isn’t it a shame she wastes it on pompous, overblown pop songs when she clearly should be singing opera and leaving pop to those who know it?” But seeing Whitney and Bobby on their crazy Israel trip, watching her retreat into the apparently wild, weird, wonderful world of her head, I thought: She could be heading for a serious “conversion” or breakdown of major, gaudy proportions. And I think that would be perfectly swell, possibly the most liberating and least destructive thing she could do, all things considered. And again, it would be what this self-styled diva’s “public” has been asking for all along: When you elevate someone for carefully avoiding anything that might make you think or has anything to do with actual human beings, our lives, and the way we live them, what sneaks back later usually isn’t pretty.

Freud called it the slow return of the repressed; Michael and Whitney are Freud 101 for a tasteless, mindless public.

-Along seemingly similar lines: Courtney Love. Now, I’ve always considered Love a talented mess- the brilliant writer who needs an editor, the good songwriter who needs the input of other musicians to push it over the top- and this recent trouble (the drugs, the break-in, the custody battle) is almost too predictable. But still, this is something she’s always courted, and it is by turns infuriating and absolutely captivating. You know that she knows that you know that she knows, and she behaves, through crises, through acclaim and abuse, accordingly; she’s many times more self-consciously intelligent in that way than the other stars, the Michaels and Whitneys, the ones who believed in the pristine image they thought the public wanted. If Love had more discipline, if she didn’t seem so intent on doing a Roseanne with her career, biting off her nose to spite her face, she could’ve been a star along the lines of a Madonna. In some ways, she’s not smart enough to handle her career or her image; in others, she’s too smart for her own good. She self-analyzes herself to such a tiny point that she obviously can’t see the whole picture; she has no perspective, she’s irrational, she’s self-destructive. She’s a rock star who knows she’s a rock star, so everything to do with her consists of a highly combustible mixtures: Self-consciousness with spontaneity, intelligence with logorrhea, dignity with recklessness. She apparently has a solo album coming out in February, which is bound to be a surprise. Will it be inspired? Reactionary? A bipolar showdown between the two? A “sell-out”? We’ll see.

-Speaking of Howard Hughes, I recently saw Jonathan Demme’s very ambivalent- and therefore very American- tale, Melvin and Howard. I was expecting a lot more Howard and a little less Melvin, but Melvin turns out to be scarcely less compelling. Jason Robards (as Hughes) imprints himself deeply during his brief but absolutely crucial time on screen, Paul LeMat is tangibly effervescent as sad-but-cheerful schlub Melvin Dummar, and Mary Steenburgen is kooky in the best way as Melvin’s sometimes wife and mother to his daughter. Real luck- a “break”- is always either out of reach or squandered by Dummar; his sense of common decency is a virtue, but it may or may not be its own reward. There’s a strange, skewered texture to the whole affair- dreamy realism, surreal grit. In the eighties, Demme had a knack for seeing the beauty and goodness in the people, places, and things usually dismissed as tacky, a gift he shared with John Waters; this film is what it might have looked/felt like if The Last Picture Show had been filtered through the latter’s sensibility.

I feel that Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia are solid but overrated (particularly the former), and I didn't bother to see Beloved or The Truth About Charlie, but I may have to seek out Citizen's Band, Married to the Mob, or revisit Something Wild (which I wasn't at all sure I liked when I rented it some years back) someday soon.

-I'm going to go Roland Barthes for a moment and count my love of Nutella as a pop-culture phenomenon. Of course, the hazelnut-chocolate spread itself is sweet and yummy, with a thick, delicious texture, but the clincher is its slight exoticism; let's just say that, however "international" it may or may not be, it's nothing I was familiar with growing up. Even though my appealingly compact tub (I am a sucker for cute package design) of the stuff says it was made in New Jersey, it's actually of German origin.

Which reminds me: I've been watching my Fassbinder box set, so there'll be plenty o' Fassbinder-talk coming the way of you all very soon.
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