Circuses are creepy. At least, clowns are creepy. On a philosophical level, the subtle menace of clowns is partly the result of the mask that separates them from the realm of normal society; basically, the clown is not quite human, but rather a grossly exaggerated caricature of one aspect of human behavior — the happy clown, the sad clown, the mad clown — and thus, in a way, peels back our own masks to reveal what is within ourselves, giving rise to a certain existential dread. At least I'm pretty sure that's why clowns make me so uncomfortable.
That, or Juggalos.
When he was alive, you could have perhaps applied a similar psychology to what it was about Michael Jackson that was so disquieting. For one thing, his appearance was weirdly mask-like, radically altered from its original form into a plasticine semblance of itself, like some kind of alien approximation of the humanoid form. More important, though, Jackson was a gross exaggeration of an aspect of the human experience, a neurosis perhaps no better epitomized than in his Neverland Ranch, the King of Pop's estate and monument to his life's most crushing tragedy.
Because the root of Michael Jackson's sadness was that he literally never had a childhood. By the time he was five, he was packing arenas and fronting a chart-topping band, on contract with Motown and in a straight-up, full-time career, just like you or me. Now imagine a regular five-year-old boy, and the mind fucking explodes to think that someone that age could have the faculty to handle that kind of responsibility. It's impressive, for sure, but it came at an unfathomably steep price — read: ruthless exploitation — and he never recovered from it. In adulthood, he became a real-life Peter Pan, a boy who could not grow up, and naming his estate Neverland Ranch was a shockingly naked acknowledgment of that fact.
There's no way to be certain, but he probably wasn't a child molester; he just related to kids on a level that normal adults move beyond. But it sure did give us the creeps, and we could not forgive him for it until about two seconds after he died, when we could forget the consequence of what we made him into and reduce him to it: a great entertainer, and no more.
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Anyway, let's get back to more traditional clowns for a second: Just because they're classed-up, vaguely continental French clowns does not make the clowns of Cirque du Soleil any less unsettling. In fact, they're maybe more so, possibly because they are less exaggerated in form than American clowns, and therefore somehow more sinister — kind of like Michael Jackson was.
And that's why it's so troubling that, in conjunction with its tribute to his life — which, really, is weird enough — Cirque du Soleil announced last week that it will re-create the Neverland Ranch in the Mandalay Bay Casino in Las Vegas, basically adding clowns to the symbol of everything that disturbed us about an already pretty unsettling dude, then putting it in a casino: It's like the unholy confluence of everything horrible about the world. (Cirque's Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour plays in Denver January 6-8, 2012.)
On the bright side, at least there will finally be one thing in Las Vegas more terrifying than Circus Circus.
Jef Otte is the assistant arts & culture editor for Westword and blog editor for Show and Tell. Read more by Otte at his Westword author page.