Michael Jackson: American beauty

His fantasies and desperate quest for physical transformation are a logical extension of the dream s

The Michael Jackson trial has been a paradigmatic moment in American cultural history, not so much because of the specific criminal allegations, but because of the insights it has offered into the inner life of one of its foremost icons. Dressed in a black suit, his chalk-white face sheltering under a black umbrella, Jackson has cut a spectral figure, rushing to hospital more than once for emergency treatment; opening the summing-up on 1 June, the judge warned the jury against being swayed by pity for the singer. Yet it may be that the singer's entourage and fans who turned up at the courthouse daily, cheering the defence team and booing prosecutors, grasped an essential truth about Jackson: that, for all his weirdness, his fantasies and his perpetual quest for transformation have deep roots in the American psyche.

Each day Jackson arrived at court after a 45-minute drive from Neverland, his 2,600-acre ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley where the abuse was alleged to have happened. Neverland is a rich man's playground where the so-called King of Pop - Jackson's monarchical fantasies are evident in the names he gave his first and third children, Prince Michael Joseph Jr and Prince Michael II - operated to his own rules, which included sharing his bedroom with boys. Jackson had become so isolated from the world and its norms that he admitted as much in Martin Bashir's 2003 documentary, failing to realise it was a dangerous revelation for a man around whom rumours of child abuse had swirled for the previous ten years.

One of the problems for the prosecution was that it became clear during the trial that Jackson's weird, self-indulgent lifestyle attracted people as disturbed as himself, either as employees or fans (like the Arvizo family) who wanted to be close to him. Some prosecution witnesses contradicted themselves, gave rambling testimonies or were accused by defence lawyers of trying to extort money from Jackson. In essence, the jury had to decide whether the singer was a victim of con artists, or a predatory paedophile who equipped Neverland with features to attract boys whom he then groomed for sex. Were the funfair and Jackson's exotic pets a lure, or merely evidence of his stunted emotional development, a consequence of being sent out to work as the youngest member of the Jackson Five when he was only 11?

It would not be surprising if Jackson, required to perform adult emotions while still a child, had become confused about who he was. The "adultification" of children is not a new phenomenon in American culture, and especially not in Hollywood, which took over the practice of using child performers from the stage, turning some of them - Shirley Temple, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, for instance - into movie stars with worldwide followings. In recent years, the notion of turning children into replica adults has become big business, with stage-struck parents entering ever younger children in beauty contests, producing disturbingly sexualised images. Nine years ago, the murder of a six-year-old girl, JonBenet Ramsey, put the practice under the spotlight. Commentators were shocked by the brutal killing - the child was bludgeoned to death in the basement of her parents' home - and the way she had been turned, according to one report at the time, into "a painted baby, a sexualised toddler beauty queen".

Jackson is said to have a horror of the ageing process, which hardly sets him apart in the modern world, but he also seems to cling to a childlike fantasy that both race and gender are infinitely mutable. The history of his attempts to remodel himself is both gruesome and compelling, allegedly starting 21 years ago with a nose job (rhinoplasty), historically the operation of choice for non-whites who want to look more Caucasian. Many other "procedures" followed, some to correct earlier mistakes, but all tending towards obscuring Jackson's racial origin. At the same time his complexion, chocolate brown in photographs taken when he was a child star, has become deathly pale, a circumstance Jackson blames on a medical condition called vitiligo. There have been rumours that he takes synthetic hormones, and the feminising of his features has prompted suggestions that he is trying to look like either his sister LaToya or the former lead singer of the Supremes, Diana Ross.

Only his most ardent fans would contend that Jackson has achieved anything other than a freakish appearance, yet the most astonishing thing about his behaviour is that in the US it is unusual only in degree. Americans underwent more than nine million cosmetic surgery procedures in 2004. (These figures do not include nearly six million reconstructive operations, carried out after accidents, cancer surgery or to repair birth defects.) In spite of a small decline last year, the trend is upwards, with a 26 per cent increase in cosmetic surgery on women from 2000 to 2004, and an increase of 16 per cent on men, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. Lip augmentation and rhinoplasty are most popular; most patients are female and white, but among ethnic minorities - African American, Hispanic and Asian American - the most frequently requested operation is still a nose job.

Nor do you need Jackson's wealth to have yourself surgically altered: prices for cosmetic procedures range from $4,250 (just over £2,300) for rhinoplasty and breast augmentation (the second most popular operation among women) to a mere $3,250 for labioplasty - a bizarre procedure to tighten "excess" tissue of the labia. Men worried that their breasts are too large can have them reduced for $4,250, and a tummy tuck is only slightly more expensive at $5,600. Some observers regard this phenomenon benevolently, arguing that it is a matter of personal choice; in Making the Body Beautiful, his authoritative history of cosmetic surgery, Professor Sander Gilman suggests that using surgical procedures to disguise racial origin - "passing", in 19th-century terminology - was "the ultimate articulation of the Enlightenment notion of transformation". Yet it is equally possible to argue that the modern American obsession with cosmetic surgery is a manifestation of an increasingly solipsistic fantasy world, which is in itself a distorted but logical extension of the American dream.

For Martin Luther King, as for most Americans, the dream began on 4 July 1776, with the preamble to the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." In a sermon delivered on Independence Day in Atlanta, Georgia in 1965, King declared: "This is a dream. It's a great dream." He went on to describe it in terms of human rights: according to King, the dream required Americans to respect the dignity and worth of all human beings and to believe they were all of equal intrinsic value. But this is only the interpretation of one man, however influential, and many Americans have focused not on life and liberty but, increasingly, on the third and most troubling part of the trinity.

Happiness is a dangerous ambition for a nation, difficult to achieve and more or less guaranteed to create discontent; it can be used to justify almost anything, from therapy and cosmetic surgery to an interventionist foreign policy, which in effect exports the American dream to other countries. And it is this aspect of the dream - personal, aspirational, often ruthlessly pursued - that has caught the imagination of millions of Americans, as well as bringing into existence the world's dominant entertainment industry.

Hollywood is the purveyor of American fantasies to the world and its story is one of rags to riches, the individual overcoming obstacles to rise to the very top - not to do good, although that can be one of his or her ambitions, but to fulfil the dream of personal transformation that every citizen inherits. It often ends in tragedy: the assassinations of John F Kennedy and his younger brother Robert; the murder of the self-made millionaire Jay Gatsby in F Scott Fitzgerald's jazz-age novel; the disgrace of the comic actor Fatty Arbuckle, after his trial and eventual acquittal of rape and murder in 1921 (the nearest 20th-century equivalent, in terms of showbiz scandal, to the Jackson trial). Yet this serves only to ennoble the aspiration and justify the incredible rewards available to a select few.

For the rest, in an increasingly fragmented and polarised society, the problem of how to achieve that transformation remains acute; evangelical religion is one answer, with its promise of better-luck-next-time, but cosmetic surgeons offer it here and now, explicitly promoting happiness as "the central goal of aesthetic surgery", according to Gilman. It is a risky and depoliticising path to take - insufficiently considered, perhaps, when commentators discuss mass disengagement from the democratic process in the US - but ingenious, in that the body becomes both the site of and the solution to individual misery.

It is the most inward-looking interpretation so far of Thomas Jefferson's vision for the nation he was founding. The ghoulish spectacle of Michael Jackson, arriving every day at the courthouse in Santa Maria, is both its embodiment and a warning. More important than the outcome of the trial, in that sense, has been its fixing of Jackson as a symbol of the way in which a nation founded on a dream is retreating into the realm of fantasy.