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The sort of navel-gazing occurring in the wake of Michael Jackson’s surprise demise is nothing new for pop music (see Kurt Cobain’s death 15 years ago). The ritualistic lauding of a pop star, replete with rebroadcasting music videos on cable news and mournful paeans to said star’s “importance”, is always about us and never about the star.
That has never been truer than for Jackson, and the grotesque worship of him over the past 24 hours reveals a lot about the generation who propelled him to stardom. It also serves as a lesson for our generation, if we’re willing to pay attention.
Michael Jackson was the last national music superstar. When the King of Pop reached his height in the 1980s, his fans included old white women from the suburbs and young black kids from the cities. He collaborated with artists as varied as Eddie van Halen, Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder. Jackson was a remnant of an era that started in the late 1950’s where America had a singular culture and when all Americans listened to the same music.
In the late 1970’s, FM radio began to gain wider appeal. The result was more stations that could specialize to reach a niche audience, and thus the rise of country, top 40 and alternative rock radio stations ensued. Kids weren’t listening to same AM station and getting Otis Redding with their Led Zeppelin right after. Jackson, partly because of his earlier success in the Jackson Five and partly because of his universally appealing brand of pop music, made his mark in the final chapter of American pop culture unity. But how important is this?
Apparently, it’s very important to the post-boomer generation. The cable news coverage of Jackson’s death has been like a VH1 countdown show on crack. We keep hearing from all sorts of friends and acquaintances about how great and influential Jackson was. And people are watching because they see themselves as a part of his story. They remember when they bought his albums and went to his shows and watched him on MTV. It’s reliving a bygone era for many who wish things were still the way they were. We “mourn” because it makes us feel like Jackson meant something more than really great music and showmanship.
I don’t think our generation understands the broad appeal the pop star had. For our parents, the quintessential Jackson is the “Thriller” video. For us, it’s the South Park episode making fun of the disgusting creep he became. When we remember Jackson, we should remember the music, the videos, and the coolness, but we should also remember the personal destruction, the increasing weirdness and the sick criminal activity that make him a confusing figure.
In the way Jackson was the last crossover star in music, he was also the first tabloid and cable news superstar. By then, his fans had grown up; they had jobs and families. Jackson represented the extremes of narcissism and self-absorption that could have been a whole generation of post-1960 babies. He never grew up. A generation’s continued obsession with Jacko indicated that some of those fans still had a lingering childishness. The most devoted fans ignored the child molestation much in the same way that Jackson did, shrugging it off as if it were inconsequential criticism. The rest of his fans watched and worried, wondering to themselves, “is this really the same Michael Jackson?” And they kept watching, wasting lots of time and resources on the trivial saga of a fallen pop star. Now that he’s gone, we are left with nothing but music videos from 20 years ago and the memory of a creep.
These days, celebrity culture permeates the lives of nearly everyone with a TV or a computer. Our generation is now geared to obsess over people who have done far less than Michael Jackson ever did (Kim Kardashian? Seriously?). We should be mindful of proportionality when it comes to our popular culture. I love great music just as much as anyone, and Michael Jackson created some of the best songs of the 20th century. But his life, which devolved into the deepest realms of perversion and bizarreness, does not deserve celebration.
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