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What A Long, Strange Trip It’s Been June 29, 2009

Posted by Kate Ryan in Michael Jackson, popular culture.
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michael-jackson-has-turned-50-280808So much happened in the last week – it’s mind-boggling.  Iran continued to implode, violence ratcheted up in Iraqi cities as U.S. troops prepared to leave, the Congress struggled over energy and health care bills, and a missing South Carolina governor was found (but found with his pants down).   On Tuesday, a decorated WWII and Korean War military pilot and beloved television personality died.  On Thursday an iconic woman who became the face of the 1970’s lost her battle with cancer.

 Every time I sat down to post, it seemed like something else more riveting occurred.  Thursday night, however, came the biggest news of the entire week.

Michael Jackson, self-described “King of Pop” and an 80’s musical genius was found non-responsive in his Hollywood Hills home.  He was pronounced dead later that afternoon at UCLA Medical Center at the age of 50.

Beginning Thursday at 5:30 pm eastern time and continuing through this minute – nothing else has happened.  Maybe it has, but we sure wouldn’t know about it.  Yesterday, T.V. pitchman and cultural icon Billy Mays was found dead in his Florida home.  It got about a minute on my local news cast and three minutes on the network last night.   All weekend, however, I could not find anything on my television – even on the cable news channels – except stories about and tributes to Michael Jackson and endless analysis of his life and death.  Seriously, I was forced to watch “The House Bunny”  on Starz because it was the only non-Michael Jackson show I had not seen before.

If I sound a bit grumpy about the whole thing, it’s because I am – quite frankly.   Though Jackson was an 80’s superstar, his strange behavior, ever-changing face, and extensive legal troubles are what anyone younger than 30 will remember him for.   As San Francisco Chronicle writer Mick LaSalle states, “the man was musically irrelevant for at least the last two decades of his life.”  After Jackson’s “Thriller” album was released in 1982 – one of the biggest albums of the 1980’s, it took five years to put out “Bad”.  “Bad” had five singles that went to number one, but it had the sense of music whose time had passed – by the late 80″s hair bands, heavy metal, hip-hop, and alternative music were starting to take hold of the scene. 

I was in college in Jackson’s heyday and I was actually a big fan.  Disco had died and there wasn’t much “fun” music to dance to in the clubs.  Jackson changed all that; he successfully mixed disco, funk, pop, and R & B into a super-energized dance rhythm.  We went crazy for it.  What’s more, through his brilliant meshing of the audio and visual arts, Jackson reinvented the music video – a staple of 1980’s culture.  Prior to Jackson’s “Billie Jean”, music videos were cheesy-looking performance pieces; his videos from the “Thriller” album took the world – and the industry – by storm.   The video for the single “Thriller”  was enormous; people would gather in groups just to watch it.  MTV would announce what time it would be played and we all just gathered together to watch – who doesn’t love a horror film?

After that, things just got weird.  Jackson was first accused of child sexual abuse in 1993, a case that was dismissed for lack of evidence.  Then, in 2005, Jackson faced trial in another sexual-molestation case.  Though he was acquitted, he settled a civil action in the case for a reported $20 million.  By that time, Jackson had become a caricature of himself – the boy in a man’s body searching for meaning.

I always believed that Michael Jackson suffered from a lot of self-loathing.  He tried to remake himself musically and when that didn’t work, he remade himself physically.  The numerous plastic surgeries left him with a cartoonish visage that looked slightly less than human.  His erratic behavior showed the lack of limits, the discomfort with his self, and the stunted-ness of his growth.  He became, at least to me, a vaguely embarrassing reminder of the excess of the 1980’s.

Jackson’s death deserved some news coverage – but no more than Ed McMahon’s or Farrah Fawcett’s.  Maybe it deserves more than Billy Mays – I withhold judgement – but was Jackson and his death enough to push everything else out of the news cycle?  And from what I’m hearing – with second autopsies & toxicology tests – it could go on for weeks.  Is Michael Jackson more important than Neda Soltan, the young Iranian woman who bled to death before our very eyes on the streets of Tehran?

This sort of thing is what makes me uncomfortable about American culture, this cult of personality that drives our news cycle.  While any celebrity death is newsworthy – is it worthy of all the news?  On “This Week” yesterday, George Stephanopolis mused aloud if all the media coverage wasn’t too much.  Peggy Noonan (of all people!) said that Jackson’s inter-generational appeal is a thing of the past and that’s why we’re paying so much attention.

I beg to differ.  We Americans all experience a certain amount of shadenfreude (an enjoyment felt in the suffering of others) where celebrities are concerned.  We build them up and delight in tearing them down – or at least watching, exploring, and discussing their various foibles. 

For most of us, Jackson was dead 10 years ago.  Our prurient interest in his passing will fade, like our interest in his music, his life, and his career.  I heard a young lady on the news say Friday that it was “the day the music died”.  Oh my.

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1. What A Long, Strange Trip It’s Been | Michael Jackson Died | RIP MJ 1958-2009 - June 29, 2009

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2. What A Long, Strange Trip It’s Been « Michael Jackson Is Dead : StarLogz.com - June 29, 2009

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