Michael Jackson's death 2.0: The modern mourning of an icon

| June 29, 2009

As someone for whom Michael Jackson’s music is a major groove in the soundtrack of my life, I feel a certain amount of emotionality about his passing. As a pop culture freak, I reel over the relevance of this death. And as a communications practitioner, I am rapt by the coverage and consumption of it all.

Four days later, you can still find a documentary or biography of Jackson somewhere on television. From the moment news broke of his death, radio stations and music networks were broadcasting non-stop musical tributes (if you haven’t seen at least a clip of an MJ video lately, you are somewhere very far off the grid). I can’t even count how many times I’ve heard “Thriller,” “Billie Jean” and “Say Say Say” (seriously) on the radio since Thursday. Maybe none of this is remarkable. But what has happened on the Internet is.

The entire web experienced a slow-down between 6 and 11 p.m. Thursday night. Websites related to Jackson buckled under the traffic. Search engines were going bonkers. Most fascinating to me was how quickly the so-called twitterverse set ablaze. Two minutes after the news broke, I initiated a search on tweetdeck for “Michael Jackson” – the ensuing column refreshed 100 new results every minute for hours. As intrigued as I was by the tweaction, it was impossible to keep up. Even now, a Google blog search for Michael Jackson yields nearly 70,000 results.

The Internet has become such the predominant source and outlet for info, it was more than half an hour after hearing about Jackson before it even occurred to me to check what was happening on television. As I sailed up and down the satellite dish dial, “breaking news” blips were interrupting most programming.

On CNN, the same team who reported Hurricane Katrina to me for nearly a week straight in 2005 had assembled to anchor me through the ‘Death of a King.’ It was downright bizarre to see political pundit Wolf Blitzer talk about Jackson from CNN’s ‘Situation Room’ while correspondents -- dispatched to the UCLA Medical Centre, Harlem’s Apollo Theatre, and anywhere else fans were spontaneously gathering -- tried to say something new every five minutes.

I don’t mean to mock, I only want to understand. Jackson’s life was practically a circus unto itself; I’m captivated by the circus that’s followed his death.

Our response to his passing has been as iconic as Michael Jackson was.

In this era of e-communications, insta-news, and media consumers-as-producers, is it any wonder the death of this superstar would incite such a profound public exchange? With all the tweeting and facebooking and youtubing going on, you might say we’re in the midst of a virtual funeral and it’s open mic at the front of the parlour. Welcome to the modern mourning of an international icon.

Ten years ago when John-John’s plane went missing, a group of us student activists in Madison, Wisconsin mocked our own captivation with a singular news channel by answering the phone “Kennedy Watch.” I don’t recall any of us texting or web-surfing the situation. And two summers before that when Princess Diana died in a strange car crash? At best, trans-Atlantic phone lines buzzed and night editors scrambled to re-design morning editions. Both deaths would have inspired the same epic, planet-consuming outpourings of shock and affection and scandal-provocation we’re seeing now for Jackson if only we’d been even half as wired.

In any era, Jackson makes the list of music celebrities who were ‘gone too soon.’ He wasn’t murdered (Lennon, 2Pac), didn’t overdose at 27 (Joplin, Jim Morrison, Hendrix, Cobain), nor was he found hanging by a belt (Hutchence) -- all tragic musical endings -- but Jackson’s demise was years in the making, primarily at the hands of an insatiable media and a vicious public. The ultimate stopping of Jackson’s pulse seems indeed untimely and unceremonious, yet the label of tragedy has been his long-standing headline.

Inevitable comparisons to Elvis Presley have begun: unprecedented universal grieving and a cardiac-related death also shrouded in prescription drug speculation. The impacts of Presley’s and Cobain’s deaths resemble Jackson’s because they, too, were innovators who fundamentally changed music; and their artistic legacies appear more resilient than whatever tumult haunted them. They’ve been built up after death in a way I can only wish will happen for Jackson. Because surely no celebrity has been as torn down in life as Jackson was: for all his eccentricities, transformations, alleged transgressions -- I’m with the Globe and Mail’s Lynn Crosbie in hoping that “death will afford him the dignity so long denied while alive.”

Thanks to the eras he survived and the e-era that is now [even 9-11 didn’t have twitter], Michael Jackson’s passing has rocked the planet. It’s so sensational, it resides in a category all its own -- not because freakish behaviour and legal problems made him a punch line as much as an idol, but because his star eclipsed all others. You could barely live on earth and not know his name. That’s a freaking icon.

Michael Jackson is considered the first black megastar. The first black musical act to be catapulted by the advent of MTV. The first artist to so successfully fuse singing with dance and image. He fundamentally changed a genre, never mind the biz. The number of contemporary artists who cite Jackson as a key inspiration (Usher, Timberlake, Ne-Yo) is a testament to his creative influence.  And given today’s American Idol-ization of musical celebrity -- a time when so many pop stars are known more for their antics than music -- the genius and artistic contribution of Michael Jackson cannot be understated.

As coverage now turns to the hows and whys, I’ll pay about as much attention to the Demerol debate as I did to the plastic surgeries and trials. I will remember Michael Jackson as an artist, innovator and pop culture icon. That he was deeply flawed only makes his legacy more poignant.


Pam Kapoor is a Gatineau-based communications consultant who will soon be blogging regularly on pop culture and politics at
rabble.ca.

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Comments

I want to thank Pam Kapoor for expressing her thoughts on Michael Jackson.  They are fair and most importantly kind.  My first thought was "now he is free".  I will never forget humming the tune and singing along to "Ben".  I loved it but I had to remove the thought that it was a rat he was singing about.  Thriller was a thrill that will never be forgotten. 

I love that he was singing about a pet rat.  What little kid doesn't love his pets and consider them their best friends?  It's such a touching song!

Above all else, he was a great dancer.  When you watched him dance, you knew you were alive.  It transcended everything.

I always loved MJ music and dancing, although I didn't want to for some reason, for many reasons.  But I could always dig it, when I heard his tunes.  Thanks for this great article Pam, I agree with your view here.  dg

Michael Jackson is hard to forget. He made a huge impact on our culture and our music. I'm happy that he's being remembered and that people like Ian Halperin are taking the time to make films about him. I really want to see Halperin's "Gone Too Soon". I think it will be a good film.

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