Jun 26 2009

Michael Jackson: media, mourning, music and monstrosity

Martin and Michael

Martin and Michael

The sudden death of singer Michael Jackson reminds us of the often-ghastly and always compelling dance between news media and fame.

The BBC News struggled to get the tone right in its description of a best-selling freak and giant of popular culture. At one point last night Sky was not sure if he was in a coma or deceased. Twitter went into frantic overdrive and some functions collapsed. The tabloids knew what the message is: Jacko Dead

He may simply have died from the toll exerted by a damaged and damaging lifestyle. Or the poison of a warped mind and shattered soul may be more directly responsible.

Michael Jackson was not a celebrity in the sense of being famous only for being famous. His fame was built on very real biographical and professional facts. He was the outstanding popular musician of the last 25 years in a world where the music dance video has become the predominant commercial art form. His was the relatively bland but insistent soundtrack to millions of lives.

His abused childhood, his changing appearance, his bizarre and pathetic ‘family’ life spoke volumes to fans who often had their own scars inflicted by modern life. The seductive sparkle of so much of the music and the packaging was counter pointed by the weird, sometimes wonderful, and always oddly raw reality of his personal world.

So he was not a cheap celeb, famous for 15 minutes. He was a persistently gripping persona who sought the limelight only to retreat to a somewhat sordid fantasy secret life. The news media reveled – quite rightly – in the painful contraditions of that dualism.

Martin Bashir’s brutal but brave documentary sought to reveal the price that others paid for Jackson’s own suffering, but in the end it was Michael who got the sympathy. We love our legends to be tarnished, dramatic and dangerous. We don’t like to think about quite how dark their lives might be.

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12 Responses to Michael Jackson: media, mourning, music and monstrosity

  1. Adrian Monck says:

    Irony: the money he made from music paid for silence…

  2. Gary Naylor says:

    There was a real misunderstanding of the nature of TMZ evident as the news broke. For an hour, most news channels tip-toed around the obvious, but one or two commentators said what I said, “TMZ have staked their entire business on this call – it must be right”.

    They then misjudged the story by treating it as a chance to run through the scandals of his life (presumably because they have the footage) instead of focusing on the work and its influence on popular culture worldwide. They are beginning to get it right now.

    I have no doubt at all that a bunch of my students would have made a better job than the news channels did between 11.00pm and 1.00am and that they would have had more knowledge of MJ’s proper position in culture and, therefore, asked the right questions.

    Uri Geller must have a camera set up in his living room ready for every celebrity death.

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  4. elliott says:

    bland?! surely a cornerstone of the MJ media phenomenon is the effect that Thriller had on the pop genre?

  5. CharlieBeckett says:

    Bland? Yes – relatively – compared to the really historic innovators who shocked people and changed pop music as opposed to just being very good at it: Elvis, Beatles, Stones, Sex Pistols, Run DMC, etc

  6. JTownend says:

    @GaryNaylor: Interesting – I didn’t see the TV news at all (save the BBC news flash). Raises more questions about perspective… Paul Gambaccini on Today prog was interesting. He said the recent period of controversy/oddness will be ‘quickly forgotten’ and ‘we’ll remember the records’. He likened it to Judy Garland – scandal surrounding the end of her life became a ‘footnote’ to the films etc. Link: http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_8120000/8120475.stm

  7. Gary Naylor says:

    JTownend – That’ll be the case with MJ. Happened to Elvis too. Talent will out.

    Charlie – MJ changed a lot, from the colour bar on MTV, almost inventing the music video as a piece worthy of critical appreciation (the full version of Thriller is bravura film-making with his future life all up on the screen years before it happened) and bringing black music four-square into the mainstream. Much more than the Beatles, Stones, ludicrously over-rated Pistols or any other music-maker, MJ provided the soundtrack to my life and millions like me, from ABC and the cartoons, to Ben being played on Radio Merseyside’s request progs (and my mother telling us it was about a rat) to Off the Wall and its irresistible reminder of the taste of lipstick and tobacco that was sixth form parties, to Billie Jean on Christmas Top of the Pops etc etc etc.

    He was a sublime singer of some great songs (plenty of other things too, but this was his finest achievement) – and that’ll always do for me.

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  9. Pete says:

    This is a reasonably thoughtful article, but it is silly to label his contribution to popular culture bland. Especially if the counterpoint to that blandness involves the bands you cite. If the Sex Pistols were ‘really historic innovators’, then I’m Prince.

    Martin Bashir’s programme was brave because it involved being two-faced and exploitative in the extreme. I really don’t think it had such intentional depth.

  10. Jenny says:

    he is the king of pop forever!and for? the fans he will never die, too!NOBODY CAN TOP HIM!HE WAS A GREAT DANCER

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  12. apin says:

    HE WAS CUTE WHEN HE WAS YOUNG BUT WHEN HE GOT OLDER HE DID NOT LOOK RIGHT LIKE WHEN HE WAS DOING THAT PEPSI COMERSHALL HE GOT HIS HAIR BURNT I KNO THAT OUT HIS HAIR AND EVERYTHING ELSE BUT I STILL LOVE HIM AND HE WILL ALWAYS BE IN MY HEART EVEN THOU HED IS DID LOVE YOU MICHAEL JACKSON

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