King of Pop, King of Obits

I turn 30 this year. When Michael Jackson's "Thriller" was released, I was 4.

So in the hours after his passing, I found myself wondering, "How big of a deal could this sad freak show really be to people?" I mean, when Jackson was Moonwalking, I was learning to tie my shoes.

But then I started to scan my memory banks. And, a few hours later, I moved on to Google, where suddenly it hit me like a high-pitched "Scham-on!"

If, like me, you ever need proof of how important Jackson's musical legacy is--or if you're struggling to understand the sickening, excruciating, turn-of-the-screw media coverage his corpse is getting--and if you can't come to grips with why no one (from Anderson Cooper on down to every Tom, Dick and Harry with a Twitter account) can seem to leave this poor man alone, even in death, then I want you to try this simple little exercise with me:

If you're anywhere within five years of my age range, take a moment and try to imagine a bigger single obituary in your lifetime.

Here's a hint: There isn't one. Not in your lifetime.

Sure, there have been larger news events involving loss of life in the past 30 years--usually massive loss of life. For anyone alive today, 9/11 springs immediately to mind. So does Iraq, as well as the Indonesian tsunami and the Pakistani earthquake that killed nearly 80,000 (no, that's not a misprint).

And yes, there have been big-name deaths, many of them in music: James Brown, Johnny Cash, Kurt Cobain and even John Lennon (his death in 1980 just barely squeaks onto our timeline in this exercise).

Over the years, many world leaders, some revered and others reviled, have fallen: former presidents Nixon and Reagan, the pope, Yasser Arafat, Princess Di and countless others.

There have been assassinations (Benazir Bhutto), executions (Saddam Hussein) and horrible foul-ups (David Koresh). So many movie stars (from Charlton Heston to Heath Ledger) and sports figures (from Pat Tillman to Dale Earnhardt) are no longer with us.

But with the possible exception of Lennon, who died when I was 1 year old, there has been not one singular death that's been bigger news to our generation than the passing of Michael Jackson. And that's because, quite simply, in my nearly 30 years on this planet, there has never been anyone quite THAT famous.

Calling Jackson larger than life is hackneyed, but it's not hyperbole. He's been a part of the cultural zeitgeist since before his age hit double digits. For more than four decades, he has cast a massive shadow over the collective consciousness of millions--first as the biggest superstar since Elvis, and later as one of the world's longest-running punch lines.

And yet--judging by Jackson's millions of fans worldwide and the throngs of ardent supporters who even now are gathered outside his rental home in Los Angeles to pay their respects--even the lingering innuendo and questions about the man's sexual appetites haven't really diminished his standing in certain circles.

If anything, it's quite clear that, for many, Jackson's star remains as pristine and undimmed as it was the day his "Thriller" video first aired on MTV, the channel he essentially birthed.

The jokes about Jackson's personal life will live on for years, but like all whispers, they will fade in time, particularly when weighed against his achievements. There's Jackson the Head Case, and there's Jackson the King of Pop. In the ensuing decades, as those two facets of his legacy sit side by side for history to evaluate, there is no question which version will prevail.

After all, if he had never recorded another note, "Billie Jean" still would make a strong case for the best pop song ever written.

Jackson rose to a level of fame in this world that very, very, very few people have reached. In his heyday, he actually was (to be trite) bigger than the Beatles. His star power circa 1982 dwarfs even the dizzying heights that Brad Pitt or Britney Spears have known, and there are precious few others whose deaths would bump Jackson from any front page (or from any "top tweets" category).

Madonna? That'd be huge news, but she wasn't a superstar at 9 years old.

Michael Jordan? Basketball is becoming a global sport, but even Jordan is no Pele.

Mariah Carey? She's beaten Jackson's sales records, but she really doesn't even belong in the same sentence.

President Obama? Yes, his death would be bigger news. Still, just to put things in perspective, according to The Associated Press, Jackson's death generated the most tweets per second since when Obama was elected president.

The point is, you can count on one hand the public figures whose deaths would deserve the kind of media attention that Jackson is getting. Make no mistake--it is a huge deal.

And whether you're inside or outside my age bracket, you should save your newspapers' front pages tomorrow.

Original Facebook post: 6/26/2009

Leave a comment

    Add comment