Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson: 1958-2009

If Farrah Fawcett represented an iconic image from my childhood in the 70's (post below), Michael Jackson was a towering figure during my adolescence in the 80's, and in a career which spanned 40 years.

"The singer was rushed to the hospital, a six-minute drive from the rented Bel-Air home in which he was living, shortly after noon by paramedics for the Los Angeles Fire Department. A hospital spokesman would not confirm reports of cardiac arrest. He was pronounced dead at 2:26 pm.

"As with Elvis Presley or the Beatles, it is impossible to calculate the full effect Mr. Jackson had on the world of music. At the height of his career, he was indisputably the biggest star in the world; he has sold more than 750 million albums. Radio stations across the country reacted to his death with marathon sessions of his songs. MTV, which grew successful in part as a result of Mr. Jackson’s groundbreaking videos, reprised its early days as a music channel by showing his biggest hits.

"His entertainment career hit high-water marks with the release of “Thriller,” from 1982, which has been certified 28 times platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America, and with the “Victory” world tour that reunited him with his brothers in 1984.

"But soon afterward, his career started a bizarre disintegration. His darkest moment undoubtedly came in 2003, when he was indicted on child molesting charges. A young cancer patient claimed the singer had befriended him and then groped him at his Neverland estate near Santa Barbara, Calif., but Mr. Jackson was acquitted on all charges."
I'm not sure students today can quite grasp how huge Jackson was at his peak in the 1980's. Simply because we have so many different types of media and music outlets today, I doubt one artist could ever achieve that level of fame, sales or cultural saturation again. Back in the days before the internet (!), we had MTV and a handful of radio stations, so if you had a hit (or several) it was quite easy to dominate "the scene." Probably 90% of radio and MTV during that period was taken up by Jackson, Madonna, Prince and Bruce Springsteen. And having worked as a DJ in college (more on my career as MC Whitebread another time), I spun Jackson's music constantly.

For whatever reasons drove him, Jackson's attempt at a transracial existence called into question the very meaning of racial barriers in our society. His constant use of plastic surgery to alter his physical appearance was the thing of tabloid fodder. And then there were the more sordid aspects of his personal life, from Bubbles the Chimp and Neverland, to the allegations of child molestation and subsequent reclusive lifestyle. No doubt these things will be pored over by biographers for years to come.

But in the end, it was and will be all about the music. I'll confess to never having been much of a fan (at some point, after spinning "Thriller" for the 1000th time, you begin to resent things), but to deny the massive impact he had on music, the culture and society is impossible.

UPDATE: More than a week later, a circus of grief I never saw coming, frankly, has emerged. Bob Herbert, writing in the 7/4 edition of the NYT, sums up the "facade" of not just Jackson but the "mania"over his demise.

The Michael-mania that has erupted since Jackson’s death — not just an appreciation of his music, but a giddy celebration of his life — is yet another spasm of the culture opting for fantasy over reality. We don’t want to look under the rock that was Jackson’s real life.

As with so many other things, we don’t want to know.

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