Like most people of my generation, I can remember where I was when I heard the news that Elvis Presley had died. I was in a tacky souvenir shop in the beach resort of Seaside Heights, New Jersey when the announcement came on the radio. Like anyone who had grown up with Elvis as one of the dominant pop culture figures of our time, I felt a sense of loss over the fact that the world had lost a great artist. However, I was shocked when friends of mine began to tell me how emotionally devastating the news was. A female friend said she couldn't cope with the sense of loss and a number of my others friends immediately went out and bought an assortment of Elvis albums. All of this would have been understandable if any of these people had idolized The King, but, in fact, none of them had ever mentioned his name to me prior to news of his death. To most of us twenty-somethings, Elvis had long ago lost his "street cred" as an innovative entertainer. Granted, he worked hard and put on a great show, but he had been content to live off past glories and pick the low hanging fruit of being a Vegas attraction. Still, upon news of his death, millions of people who barely knew he was still performing became Elvis fanatics overnight. The irony is that The King earns more in death than he ever did in life.
I mention all of this because of the inevitable fact that the same scenario will be played out regarding Michael Jackson.Although he still maintained an enormous world-wide following, for most of the general public, he was a punch line on a late night comedy show. Yet, the beatification process has already begun. It's one thing to acknowledge Jackson's well-earned reputation as a master performer and musical genius, but the news media is making Jackson sound like Mother Theresa. The immediate aftermath of a man's death is not the time to assault his reputation. Jackson's scandalous behavior in many aspects of his life has been amply chronicled elsewhere. However, one has to question the emotional stability of anyone who is now indulging in the world-wide mania for Jackson memorabilia. It stands to reason that virtually none of these people could have been induced to purchase this junk just two days ago. What comfort does it give someone to jump on a bandwagon and become an instant loyalist to a man they had virtually no interest in up until his death? It's a curious phenomenon, but one we should be used to by now. The Times of London reports that sales of Jackson's music and memorabilia is skyrocketing around the world. Why? Most of us probably already own the good songs he made (and Thriller is as standard as furniture in most households) So what motivates a person to go out and buy the second-rung music? Does one really get a sense of personal worth from wearing a cheesy T shirt commemorating Jackson, even though it was ground out by an opportunist within minutes of his death? Given Jackson's propensity for the outlandish, he would probably be complimented by all this - after all, in his world, any attention was better than being ignored. However, for many of these people, as of a few days ago, Jackson was as relevant to the contemporary music scene as Liberace. The international news media predictably deemed that there was no other story in the world worth covering than Jackson's life and career. Iran on the brink? Who cares? The health care debate in America? Big news a few days ago, now irrelevant. Violent eruptions in Iraq on the verge of the U.S withdrawal from urban centers?Yawn... The only one grateful for this is South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, the Amelia Earhart of politicians, whose bizarre disappearance and related sex scandal pushed him off the front pages.
There is a real tragedy behind Jackson's passing, and it goes beyond a
musical genius dying at age 50. He was the poster boy for the kind of
back-stabbing and phony cronyism that characterizes the entertainment
industry. Deprived of a normal childhood by a father who used
discipline methods out of Oliver Twist, Jackson never really
stood a chance at leading a conventional life. An army of hangers-on
used him as a cash cow and now they, along with his fragmented family,
will be fighting for the scraps of his empire. The ultimate tragedy, of
course, is that we'll never know if Jackson would have been able to
carry off his comeback tour. The enthusiasm was there, according to his
intimates. He wanted to prove he still had it in him, and his fans were
more than ready to support him. Advance tickets to his concerts sold
out in minutes. Personally, I don't think it ever would have happened.
Jackson was simply too frail to ever pull off the kind of antics he
used to perform. Perhaps it was the strain of that realization that
contributed to his death. There are certain wonderful things that
should not be revived for fear of contaminating what we loved about
them to begin with. That's why its great that The Beatles had enough
sense to realize that no reunion could have ever lived up to the hype.
Thus, perhaps it's fitting that we'll never know the outcome of
Jackson's comeback. At least in the minds of his fans, the concerts
that never were will become a triumphant part of his legend - and for
that, Jackson is undoubtedly up there smiling.