Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Michael Jackson in Perspective

Michael Jackson is dead. Coverage of this event has dominated the news media, and also the new media of social networking. I have written so much about the culture of celebrity in the past, it feels like I'm just repeating myself to state that the attention this event is generating is terribly out of proportion to the significance of the event.

The reality is that a popular singer has died. A once-popular singer you might say, but very much an American idol. His passing is worth noting, worth an obituary in the paper, a story on the nightly news. That's it. That's the reality of it. He did not change the course of history. He will not be well remembered in a generation or two. How many young people today know much of anything about Bing Crosby? Who remembers Al Jolson anymore, aside from movie buffs who know him for appearing in the first talkie?

Daniel Boorstin had it right, had so much of it right, in his classic media ecology work, The Image. He wrote there about how, in the case of real events where something has actually happened, and real heroes who are characterized by true greatness, our interest is in what really happened, and what they have achieved. In the case of pseudoevents (otherwise known as media events) and celebrities, who he referred to an human pseudoevents, interest is spurred by ambiguity. Did anything actually happen, and if so, what?

In Michael Jackson's case, there is the ambiguity about whether he was a child molester or the victim of gold diggers, and the whole question of his sexuality. There was the question of whether he was essentially normal, or wildly idiosyncratic. There was the question of who were the parents of his children. There was the question of whether he was washed up or ready for a comeback. There was the question of how much plastic surgery he had, and whether it was elective or motivated by various ailments and injuries. There was the question of his use of prescription drugs. And now, the questions surrounding his death.

Without all of this ambiguity, there would not be the same level of interest. How much attention did Frank Sinatra get when he passed away? How about Elvis Presley? By the way, it was in response to the death of Elvis that someone in the business remarked, "good career move!" And indeed it was then, as it is now for Michael Jackson's estate, as the value of his music and anything connected to him has skyrocketed.

To be honest, I liked his music, but I wasn't crazy about it, and he didn't mean very much to me in my life. I know that for others his music mattered a great deal, but the music is not the man. I will admit to a special fondness for Captain Eo, a 3D movie he starred and performed in which was featured in Disney themeparks during the late 80s and 90s. Also starring Anjelica Huston, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, with George Lucas as Executive Producer, it was a short science fiction musical. And while YouTube can't capture the experience of the big screen, and the 3D effect with polarized glasses is missing, but it's still worth including here (it's broken up into two parts):

And, oh, all right, I'll throw in "We Are The World" free of charge:

And look, there's no denying that was pretty cool, and did some good. But in the end, the death of a celebrity serves as a reminder of our own mortality. And that is a sobering reality, and in many ways a devastating blow.

Ernest Becker in his popular book, The Denial of Death, wrote that we humans are in the peculiar position of being aware of the fact that our days are numbered, that we are the only species with that "gift" that is at best a mixed blessing. And that awareness is so devastating to our self-esteem, that culture is mostly dedicated to repairing our sense of self by making us feel important, by making us feel like heroes. In fact, Becker referred to cultures as hero-systems. And culture heroes give us models for our own everyday heroism, allowing us to live in denial of death, allowing us to live.

Michael Jackson's death shatters the illusion and threatens our self-esteem, and so culture steps in, and the ritual of mourning and memorials helps to repair the damage. But not to speak ill of the dead, at his best, Michael Jackson gave us a hero image that helped us to live heroically in our own lives, at least a little bit for me, for others a lot more, and for that I will say farewell Captain Eo, thank you, and rest in peace.


Moses said...

Great perspective ....putting perspectives in a perspective way.... I knew the man personally and only 1 day in my life.... it was September 19th 1993 .... it was a breath-taking ....as if the guy was some how a magician ...I was sent by a local newspaper to interview Michael...he not only interviewed me but he showed me what he is made of .... he was the kindest I have ever met...he donated 1 million dollars to a childrens hospital here ....that blew me away ....his personality ...although very childish ...was of a humanitarian.... and of his showmanship a simple GENIUS !!!! the Einstein of the stage and the Job (from the bible) of his life .. RIP Michael... a rest he truly deserves...as Stevie Wonder put it ...."God needed him more than us...."

Wit Is Cool said...

Here's a BBC correspondent's take: