So Michael Jackson has passed to the great MTV show in the sky and from all of the media hype there is apparent concern that civilization teeters on the brink of the abyss.
I must admit that he was outside of my era but I can accept the apparent consensus that he was an innovator and a brilliant performer. But I’m afraid that from my point of view his weirdness trumped his musical heritage.
From his friend the chimp (the best line I read that was that Bubbles had been relegated to a sanctuary because he knew too much), to his flamboyant dress and the gloves and the face masks, the ongoing facial surgery that left him looking more and more like a fugitive from a horror movie and the numerous stories, lawsuits and charges that tainted him with the evilness of pedophilia, he had become more of a caricature than a real person.
Heavily in debt and living far beyond his means he was in the process of engineering a ‘comeback’ through a series of concerts, which no doubt would have brought the crowds and money in, but would in reality have been, shades of the Rolling Stones, Neil Diamond and others, just one more trip down memory lane.
A comeback would have entailed new material and acceptance by the young crowd that drives the pop market and that was not likely. Jackson had his time and his place in the fickle world of pop music and he was unlikely to ever regain the glory years.
But what fascinates me in all of this is the public reaction, with people in tears and apparent trauma over the death. It’s not like Jackson has done anything positive in recent years – just the opposite, but his passing seems to generate a hysterical response in a certain section of the populace. Is this a ”get a life’ factor coming into play?
Of course it’s not just with Jackson. When Princess Diana was killed the reaction worldwide was even more pronounced. And even when Pierre Elliot Trudeau died at the advanced age of 81 and many years removed from the political process, there were people calling in to talk shows concerned about the future of Canada with PET no longer there to steer the country.
There is always the public fascination with celebrity death – even minor celebrities – as witness the never-ending soap opera regarding the death of Anna Nicole, but only a few of them generate the mass grieving syndrome.
It’s not as though it is a new phenomenon either. The death of Rudolf Valentino in 1926 saw a massive turnout of people.
An estimated 100,000 people lined the streets of New York City to pay their respects at his funeral, handled by the Frank Campbell Funeral Home. The event was a drama itself: Suicides of despondent fans were reported. Windows were smashed as fans tried to get in and an all day riot erupted on August 24. Over 100 Mounted officers and NYPD’s Police Reserve was deployed to restore order. A phalanx of officers would line the streets for the remainder of the viewing. The drama inside would not be outdone. Polish Actress Pola Negri, claiming to be Valentino’s fiance, collapsed in hysterics while standing over the coffin, and Campbell’s hired four actors to impersonate a Fascist Blackshirt honor guard, which claimed to have been sent by Benito Mussolini. It was later revealed as a planned publicity stunt. Media reports that the body on display in the main salon was not Valentino but a decoy were continually refuted by Campbell.
This article purports to give an explanation for the phenomenon:
The rise of celebrity also corresponds with a public increasingly devoid of total relationships with others, individuals’ connectedness with others and the broader society dampened by the anonymity of urban life, reduced civic involvements, increasing rates of singlehood and living alone, and by the instrumental relationships demanded by the workplace and marketplace. Further amplifying appetites for celebrities’ stories is the new personality type populating the social landscape, characterized by sociologist David Riesman as being “other-directed,” relying on others to define one’s own lifestyles and beliefs— particularly those publicly identified as living more interesting, glamorous, or important lives. Thus the public may know more about the celebrities’ stories than they do of those of their neighbors and associates.
And who knows, maybe he has it pegged right. But maybe it’s'simply that there are just a lot of nutbars out there.