July 7, 2009 [LINK / comment]

R.I.P. Michael Jackson, Superstar

To some people, he was the very source of their inspiration and happiness in lives, and it is both a tribute to his talent and a sign of our societal times that he was often treated like a Messiah. The memorial service in his honor at the Staples Center in Los Angeles this afternoon was truly "fit for a king." The 16,000 or so attendees sat in silence at the beginning, an eerie spectacle to behold. The musical tributes to the "King of Pop" were very well done, and the eulogies by Queen Latifah, Smokey Robinson, Rev. Al Sharpton, and others were deeply moving. It was unfortunate that some of the speakers felt compelled to defend his character or the child guardian rights which Michael Jackson assigned to his mother. We all know the he was deeply troubled and eccentric, but now is not the time to dwell on his shortcomings. I began with a slightly detached, though sympathetic attitude, and came away with a sense that our nation really has lost a real treasure.

I had anticipated more fan frenzy to get access to the service, but those who weren't lucky enough to get tickets respectfully kept their distance with a minimum of commotion. Their generally restrained behavior in this time of grief is a positive sign. When was the last time the nation mourned as deeply as this? I don't think any other funerals have drawn as much media attention since those of Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy in the 1960s.* The deaths of Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II were marked by elaborate ceremonies that were fitting for their greatness, but both men were old at the time, and their passing was not unexpected. Michael Jackson was truly larger than life, but being mortal, he was not larger than death. That is what is so hard for those who adored him to comprehend. Though blessed with immense talent and ambition, in the end he was just as frail and error-prone as the rest of us.

* UPDATE: After watching a TV report on the Michael Jackson memorial service, I remembered the funeral of Princess Diana in 1997. That monumental tragedy was on certainly par with those others in terms of media coverage and public attention. "Only the good die young."

"The king is gone but not forgotten." Though the next line in Neil Young's song "Out of the Blue, Into the Black" spoke of punker Johnny Rotten, it really referred to Elvis Presley, another wildly popular musical superstar whom I was never terribly wild about either. Nothing against either one's music, they were just not my style. Quasi-religious cults have grown up around the Elvis phenomenon, and something like that will probably happen with Michael Jackson fans. For a while in the mid-1960s, the Beatles enjoyed intense adulation from millions of their screaming fans, but that was a fad that soon passed. Other than those examples, I can't think of any other pop music stars who rose to such heights of popularity. I can't think of any musical performer or group I have ever had such a strong attachment to, but as a devout fan of baseball, I can understand how one can get carried away with one's interests in sports and entertainment.

As a non-fan, there is no point in me reviewing Michael Jackson's musical career. I am, however, quite curious about what it was that ignited such passionate devotion to Jackson. He was so deeply loved by so many that he was seen as above reproach, or even above sin. (!) For his fans, any allegations against him had to be lies or distortions, no matter how many times he put himself in compromising situations. He really strained their credulity to the limit, and that is very sad for them.

In today's News Leader, Erika Lassen made an excellent observation: Why don't we pay as much attention to military heroes and others who sacrifice their lives for the greater good? We should be ashamed. Her general point was simply that our culture is too obsessed with celebrities, and there is no denying that. We should remember, however, that there is nothing new with fan adulation of entertainers and political leaders. It's just that Michael Jackson rose to the top of the "hit charts" just as media technology had advanced to the level at which global communications were nearly instantaneous. He was the first true global superstar, hence the Live Aid "We Are the World" charity concert/movement. If one side-effect of Jackson's musical career is to raise popular awareness of poverty in the Third World, and spur constructive action, then that alone will make his life worthy of high praise.

Last week Fishersville Mike wondered what kind of U.S. Postage stamp will be issued in Michael Jackson's honor. (Various Third World countries had commemorative stamps honoring him many years ago.) I commented,

As a stamp collector, that was one of the first things that occurred to me, as well. I would prefer an image of Michael doing his music video dance for the title song "Thriller," with his face painted up to look like a ghoul risen from the grave, which eerily presaged how he really did look two decades later.

But all kidding aside, we should try to look beyond Jackson's psychological problems, vices, and fan-induced egomania, and remember him for the great joy he brought to billions of people around the world. Almost without exception, his songs had a positive theme, without foul language and without any glorification of violence. By the standards of many of today's musical performers, you could say, Michael Jackson was a saint. Rest in peace, Michael.

More deceased celebrities

It seems like an awful lot of big-name celebrities and other famous people have "passed from the stage" over the past month. Here is a listing excerpted from deadoraliveinfo.com:

I should also mention that earlier this year, in March, long-time NBC economic correspondent Irving R. Levine passed away. The erudite, bow-tied, old-school journalist sometimes called the U.S. Department of Labor office where I used to work, asking about our latest inflation statistics. I talked to him on the phone once or twice, responding to his queries. I know that he was very hard-working and knowledgeable, and his reports were always incisive and accurate.