They buried Michael Jackson today.
The memorial served as the final spectacle for a man whose public life was almost nothing but. Fans, friends, and family said goodbye in a stirring series of recollections and performances. Berry Gordy’s remarks for the child star of Motown, and Stevie Wonder’s rendition of “Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer” were among the standouts. The first public words from one of his children, perhaps, the most lasting.
Outside, the media and throngs of more fans clamored to be a part of something they actively created and yet didn’t fully understand. All in all, it was the kind of production we’ve come to expect from MJ, one befitting his status in popular entertainment.
Michael Jackson died almost two weeks ago and, strangely, the cultural hyperbole of the performer’s unexpected death has seemingly already found its place within our collective memory of him. It is shocking, but only in the way everything associated with him was. There never was a popular entertainer as big as Michael Jackson. His life was a series of unbelievable events. How could his death be any different?
If anything, the memorial was jarring for its reminder that the icon was also a person, now a body in a coffin before a packed auditorium. His weeping children, brothers, and sisters pulling our attention, though still feeding the public emotion of the moment. The person they mourned, however, was beyond human in so many ways. I couldn’t help thinking that the public service, televised to the world, might have been more meaningful for his family than the private ceremony they held earlier that morning. Michael may have been their son and brother, but he was also the engine of a train that transformed all their lives in ways almost surreal.
And, yet, there is also something unspectacular about his passing, something common and almost rote. Michael’s legend became solidified in death in the way it seems to always happen for music legends. The surprise of his death is the expected end to a story we’ve heard so many times before.
When the “King of Pop” had a heart attack, I was inclined to reach into my analysis bag and find the piece that fits the hole and say this is my generation’s “Where were you when Elvis died?” moment. It’s a question I heard adult music fans ask each other for most of my life. I was five when the “King of Rock ‘n Roll” passed, a little boy going to shopping with his mom in a small suburban town of the greater Los Angeles area. We heard the news on the radio. It was raining. It was August in LA and it was raining.
Thing is, the question always bugged me, mostly because it was the wrong way to ask what people wanted to talk about. They wanted to share where they were and what they were doing when they heard Elvis had died. They wanted to share an event, the receiving of news that is shocking, so shocking you remember where you were when you got it. They wanted to share the surprise, the unanticipated emotions, the kick in the gut. And they wanted to confront the surrealism of death, in particular the death of somebody you never met but who, in passing, could have such a mysterious and sad effect upon you.
Other popular musicians and performers had died unexpectedly before Elvis, but none had possessed his historical or cultural significance. Like MJ for those who came of age after the “boom,” he was bigger than his music. He was bigger than popular music itself. He was a self-contained entertainment event, a spectacle, a movement, and a tragedy.
Maybe it’s the natural comparison to that other King, but another part of me can’t help thinking the question we’re going to be asking each other is a little off, still. Part of me feels like we should be asking “When did Michael Jackson die?”
That’s probably the same question we should have asked about Elvis, even though we didn’t really want to know the answer. That’s the funny thing about icons. The human death of the person who represented the phenomenon we associate with them is not necessarily the death of the phenomenon. (And that’s not because the “music lives on,” though it does; that’s just the beauty of art.) The person’s death is not the phenomenon’s death because that phenomenon is often already dead.
Icons aren’t people. People play them, inspire their creation, carry the burden and benefit of having this uncontrollable, unmanageable, and largely incomprehensible force housed inside of and on their body, but they are not the “it” that is magical. It is bigger than them. It is them magnified by infinity. It is not them at all. Michael Jackson was a person, an artist, and entertainer. Michael Jackson was also a larger than life movement, a burst of media-dominating mass consumerism, and a cultural artifact.
Jackson’s status as a cultural icon is built on the person he was, sometimes bordering on an impersonation of the man he could never become. But the death of that person, however tragic and sad, is not an end to his iconic position, just like the waning of the Jackson phenomenon was not. If anything, it is fuel for it.
The vacillations of the tabloid & news coverage of him during his life should not be seen as the same as his regard as an artist or as a cultural phenomenon. His standing on those counts is the reason he was and remained tabloid fodder. But even that fodder didn’t affect the icon, since that had already been locked in time as finite, as past. The most horrid of charges leveled against him later in life couldn’t even take it away.
At the heart of it all was his talent. From there, he made us all dance, the kids and the old people in the room. Everybody. He made us love him with the smile, the cuteness, the power and passion all contained within a boy-man. By the time of Off the Wall and Thriller we were well-primed.
That’s when it all took off, became the thing that we’re really concerned with right now, and tomorrow and after that.
The Michael Jackson spectacle—-the worldwide superstardom—-should not be underestimated. No musical performer or group has ever been as popular as he was at his height. Nobody may ever be that big again. Jackson made an event out of the premiere of his Pepsi commercials; his award show performances were the thing you talked about the next day at school; kids went crazy for him on nearly every continent of this globe. There was a time in the 1980s, maybe it was 1983 or 1984, when every single member of my family knew exactly who Michael Jackson was—and that family spanned nine decades of life and two nations.
And in death it has been more of the same, maybe even more than the same. The Michael Jackson story is hardly over. It is now bookended and complete. A little thing like death can’t kill it. What the icon means will change over time; we can only guess what it will mean to generations alive a century from now. But we can almost be assured that the icon will mean something.
And how amazing is that?