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What we can learn from the Jackson coverage

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Tuesday, Jun 30, 2009

Recapping Jackson’s career is kind of pointless now as it’s been done thousands of times this week and you should know the facts by now anyway.  Even the balancing act of amazing art and terrible personal life ain’t exactly something new in show biz.  What’s much more interesting is the reaction to his untimely demise, which like the death of his one-time late father-in-law (who he’s compared to a lot) was both shocking but also unsurprising in a way.

I definitely understand anyone (especially non-fans) that are sick to death of reading Jackson stories now and the many ones to come but I think the good ones (and even some of the bad ones) say a lot that can help us understand something about pop culture and American culture in general.


  • Several sites and social networks buckled under the strain of users sharing news or searching for news.  TMZ, the tabloid trash haven, actually seems to have broken the story about his death and got overloaded with users for its trouble. Twitter similarly got overloaded and strained with messages and questions about him before the news became official.  What was also interesting about these two cases is that in both instances, questionable and unverified material was floated around, questioned, analyzed, argued, debunked and turned inside out.  Years before Web 2.0, you wouldn’t have seen all of this unofficial, behind the scenes frenzy going on so publicly.  The Net’s propelled the news process so quickly and publicly that this kind of event can’t be kept under wraps and will get swirled around until there’s some fact checking and verification.  For most people, when the L.A. Times finally confirmed the death, that was good enough even for most TV stations to finally report the same.  Expect this kind of phenomenon to happen more often with big stories like this.  As Craig Kanalley pointed out, Twitter did provide a valuable service then but fact checking is still needed. Daily Mail also had an extensive, well-researched time line about how the story broke and how it broke some of the Web 2.0 sites.


  • You expect the usual necrophilia in terms of album sales bump but this was pretty unprecedented. Amazon had Jackson’s records listed all of the top sellers and even then, they were out of stock for weeks on them.  As such, MJ was ready to storm the Billboard charts.  Of course, this wouldn’t stop anyone from buying the MP3’s from Amazon, iTunes (which also had him as the top seller several times) or elsewhere.  This tune-raiding may be another nail in the CD’s coffin but on other hand, you could also argue that the lil discs will also become collector’s items and reinforce (temporarily) the value of the CD as physical object (kinda hard to cherish MP3 files in the same way).  In either case, NYT columnist Rob Walker has an excellent article that explains the post-death sales surge.


  • Again and again (Chuck Eddy and Andrew Sullivan for instance), boosters would end their tributes by wishing that Jackson was finally at peace now.  Considering the circumstances of his death, that doesn’t seem likely.  Much as he probably dreaded the grueling show schedule that he was about to undertake in England, he wanted and needed a grand event as a comeback.  Though he prophetically hinted that the shows would be his last curtain call, he obviously looked to them as vindication of his lost years and a chance to become a beloved star again.  In fact, according to the people who were rehearsing with him on his last day (see this Time article), he was more focused than he’d been in a while about making a great concert and show that he still had the goods to a wide audience.  Instead, he never got a chance to prove that.


  • One point of fact that keeps coming up in his career is that he broke down racial barriers on MTV.  In a sense that’s true but it’s much more accurate to say that it was actually CBS Records honcho Walter Yetnikoff- he was the one who told the network that they weren’t gonna get ANY more videos from the label’s artists unless they put Jackson in rotation.  MTV caved in and it turned out to be a huge boost not just to Jackson but also to for the network. (NOTE: Daily Swarm, among others, have cast doubt on the Yetnikoff story, saying that MJ had inside people to help him with getting his videos on the air but even if that’s so, it still wasn’t MJ himself as a force of nature that technically made it happen)


  • Andrew Sullivan and Jeff Chang tailed off their otherwise smart pieces by making the readers and audience complicit in Jackson’s death. The ‘we-killed-him’ line is just melodramatic crap.  If you want to be more accurate, you might say that the tabloid media that he toyed with turned on him and then pounced on him, especially after he gave them plenty of excuses to do so.  That isn’t to say that they always treated him fairly (they definitely didn’t) but that he was confused and alienated by his own fame and that came out again and again in his rare public appearances.


  • Articles, blogs and tweets took to sum up Jackson by praising him for his music and art or damning him for having a messed-up personal life, struggling to try to reconcile the two, as if that needed to be done. Biographer Nelson George covered this aspect well (and immediately made himself unavailable for interviews) but Spin Magazine’s Steve Kandell probably had the best take on this, refusing to find a reason to reconcile the two sides of Jackson: “Iconic pop stars should be weird and unknowable, that’s what we’re paying them for… they should be shooting their televisions and comparing themselves favorably to Jesus and collecting African babies at will and sleeping in hyperbaric chambers with well-dressed chimpanzees and possibly, regrettably, kindergartners. Because we cannot. We need them to live lives we’ll never know, lives we shouldn’t know.” Vanity Fair’s Maureen Orth tried to make the case that the nutty behavior was just part of his calculated attempts to play the press though that obviously backfired once child-molestation charges were brought against him.  Also note that as good as the level of writing was, the Village Voice‘s archive tributes are split about evenly between stories about his image and his craziness.


  • His death also proved to be a case study in news cycles.  Just a week after a fermenting civil war was brewing in Iran, 70’s icon Farrah Fawcett died (not to mention Ed McMahon and pitch-man Billy Mays) and U.S. media were planning to make her the lead story until Jackson died the same day, putting her off as a 2nd story afterwards.  Similarly, some wags noticed that South Carolina governor Mark Sanford was also knocked off the news for his bizarre behavior and had the media’s obsession with Jackson to thank for that.  Sad to say, as the media furor of Jackson died down over the weekend, Iran didn’t come close to making a comeback in the news.  On U.S. TV, three of the four major networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) juggled their evening prime time line-up’s to do same-day specials on Jackson (admittedly most of the line-up’s were in summer repeat mode by that time).


  • In terms of political shows, the Sunday morning programs seemed to keep touting the same message- ‘why are people so broken up over Jackson?’  At least that’s what they said publicly.  On Face the Nation, host Bob Schieffer lectured the audience ‘a society is defined by who it honors.’  He also talked of how he went on one of Jackson’s shows and how impressed he was with it.  But then he preached that “a tortured existence and weirdness are example of how NOT to live one’s lives… With Van Gogh, Barry Bonds, there’s nothing new about separating art from artists…”  Finally, he concluded “pop icons and American heroes are not the same thing.”  Somewhat in the same vein, Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri tweeted this: “Is anyone else slightly uncomfortable with the amount of air time devoted to the sad death of Michael Jackson?”  Translation: our political matters are much more important than this story. 


    On This Week with George Stephanopoulos, the Jackson topic came up at the end of the round table discussion.  Columnist/speech writer Peggy Noonan spoke about watching the Motown anniversary with family and said that part of what we miss are those communal moments.  In the later Green Room discussion (online only), economist/columnist Paul Krugman said that he first thought that it’s ridiculous to devote time to this (echoing Schieffer’s thoughts above) and then reconsidered that to say that he/we needed to ‘lighten up… we need some of this…,” later calling him a ‘genius.’ Author Michael Eric Dyson said he was impressed that in the 70’s, a white woman (Farrah) and a black man could ‘seize cultural authority.’  Later, Dyson reasoned that Jackson had two childhoods- one that was denied by father who demanded work and a second one he tried to grab and make up later. Noonan returned with another poignant thought. “We live in media environment- it’s an easy to fill media time, put on tape of Michael dancing and Farrah laughing. When life is made easier for television producers, it changes what we see.”


  • There seemed to be a contest to convey the breadth of mourning among heads of state (including some anger over Obama not commenting soon enough), directors, actors, musicians, and fans around the world.  It became a game to see which story could amass the most impressive range of quotes, including stories from the New York Times  and The BBC. The Guardian even had listing of papers around the world covering his death.


  • Some of the best stories didn’t seek to sum up his life but looked at how he individually affected others. Spin Magazine’s staff shared their memories about encountering MJ’s work as did the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, the Defender’s Ralph Richardson, Mark Reynolds at PopMatters and writer Eisa Ulen (thanks to writer Rob Fields for expertly culling many of these articles and more).  Perhaps most chilling piece was from ex-wife Lisa Marie Presley, where she blogged about their marriage and how she tried to ‘save him from his self-destructive behavior.’


  • Also particularly moving where the stories that focused on his abused childhood and how that effected the rest of his life, including articles from Roger Ebert (particularly focused on his role in The Wiz) and Andrew Sullivan who loved the music and mourned Jackson as abused man-child.


  • Maybe writers and fans thought it kinda crass to bring up in detail when talking about Jackson’s achievements but there were also some fascinating articles about his finances and business dealings.  In addition to this NYT piece about his huge income and huge loses, there was also this Wall Street Journal piece about how he revolutionized celebrity sponsorship and this Harvard Business article about how he branded himself well (though it’s in bad taste to note that dying young was a good career move, even if it’s true).


  • What was also interesting was the things that weren’t usually discussed, specifically race.  That did come up in the career-spanning pieces, to say that there were obviously lots of turmoil and confusion about that in Jackson’s life, but there were not enough pieces dealing with race specifically.  One attempt was this report from NBC news about how the African-American community reacted, in the guise of the BET tribute and elsewhere.  Obviously, this still isn’t an issue that we’re comfortable talking about in general.


    Another issue that the NBC piece brought up was that Jackson hadn’t been a hot topic for a while, at least until the announcement of the UK shows came up.  Part of that had to deal with the fact that Jackson hadn’t toured or put out any new records in a while (or rarely did interviews)- mags/pubs are hard pressed to report on stars if there’s no fresh news.  The trials and scandals provided some fodder for that but definitely not the kind of coverage he was looking for.  A nice exception was Paste Magazine’s cover story on last year’s Thriller anniversary/reissue.


  • Kind of a coy note about pop star coverage here on PopMatters.  I’ve noticed that when writing about figures like Jackson, the responses are usually “how dare you question his artistry!” (from fans, natch) or “why are you wasting your (our) time on this?” (from detractors of course).  That leads me to wonder if these commentators actually read PM at all or just find this material through search engines since PM covers this type of thing all the time and it wouldn’t be much of a mag if just blindly praised everyone it covers.  Hopefully I’m wrong this time.


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