History in the Making

During the first hour of my radio show last Thursday afternoon, I mentioned how every male who had grown up in the 70s lost a piece of himself when Farrah Fawcett died, even if he didn’t own the famous poster. A female caller then reminded me that girls liked the Farrah ‘do. I remarked on the air that as a guy, I wasn’t looking up that high.

What I didn’t know was that Farrah was about to be relegated to page 2. When I saw the first bulletin about Michael Jackson sometime after 4:00, it didn’t sink in right away—I had to read it to myself a couple of times to grasp the potential importance of it. On the air, I read the CNN dispatch about the cardiac arrest, and I repeated it even after TMZ.com reported that he had died. The program director and I weren’t going to go on with the story based only on the TMZ report. But when the Los Angeles Times confirmed it, that was enough for me.

(I was on the air the night Princess Diana died. Because that station was more of a jukebox than Magic 98 is, I held off on the story for a long while, until it became clear that her accident was no fender-bender. Shortly before the end of my show, I read the bulletin that she had died. I also read the first bulletin of the Challenger explosion on the air in 1986.)

I have come across some interesting observations on Michael Jackson’s legacy over the last few days of reading. Right here on this blog, commenter Chuck noted the ties between Jackson and Elvis (he married Lisa Marie, remember) and Jackson and the Beatles (he owned their song catalog), and says Jackson’s death means “the end of boomer megapop.” Author Michaelangelo Matos made a similar point at Salon, saying:

What we’ve lost, in a word, is monoculture. Michael Jackson is the final pop star of seeming consequence to everyone—not just people who don’t normally care about music, but people who don’t care about culture, period. Obviously, it’s been a quarter-century since that was unequivocally true. But he’s the last pop musician for whom it was even equivocally true.

Mark Morford of SFGate said something similar in fewer words: “[B]illions of humans disagree about the nature of God. But everyone knows what the moonwalk is.” At Popdose, Dave Steed said that because he’s not old enough to remember John Lennon’s death, Michael Jackson is his John Lennon.

A couple of my blogger friends have received anonymous reader comments saying that Jackson was a child molester and degenerate, that his transgressions render his other accomplishments worthless, that sympathy for him is inappropriate, and we should all just shut up. What those people are saying is that the totality of Michael Jackson’s life should be judged solely by the worst thing he ever did. Seems fair enough, I suppose, until you ask yourself if you’d like your life to be judged precisely the same way—and no one ever wants that. (There’s a bit of a philosophical problem in this—after all, Adolf Hitler was good to his mother—but I ain’t going there today.)

I was just getting out of the car the other night when somebody on the radio posed the following question: Now that Michael Jackson is gone, are there any living celebrities who would spark a similar worldwide media frenzy if they were to die? I can’t think of one, for the very reasons Chuck, Michaelangelo Matos, and Mark Morford state above. Jackson was the last figure of his kind. Music, movies, TV, the audiences are all fragmented now. Nobody bridges categories anymore like Elvis did, or Lennon did, or Jackson did. But I may be missing someone. If you can think of anyone, let me know.

Other Jacksoniana: Jerry Del Colliano’s customarily opinionated take on what radio stations did and didn’t do right on Thursday is right here. Jeff at AM, Then FM, explores Jackson’s influences and links to a couple of must-read pieces, including Lisa Marie Presley’s thoughts on Jackson’s death. And for a couple of really wonderful photos of Michael Jackson, check My Hmphs and Art Decade.

2 responses

  1. I think you’re right: There’s no one else who will spark the same firestorm. Bono? Nope. Not big enough. (On the other hand, I think traditional media will go nuts when Elizabeth Taylor dies. New media? Unlikely.)

  2. I think Paul McCartney would rank as the Number One world-wide celebrity whose entire life would be chronicled by every aspect of the media.

    One thing is quite evident about Michael Jackson…when he was big, he was BIG! Only Elvis, the Beatles, and possibly Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Marilyn Monroe dominated the world of entertainment quite like Michael Jackson. Nat King Cole might have dominated, too, but he performed in an era when blacks weren’t allowed to achieve such success.

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