[7 July 2009]
In the countless articles celebrating/eulogizing the man, an old Lester Bangs quote on the passing of Elvis Presley showed up again and again: “I can guarantee you one thing: we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis.” Looking back, Bangs’ quote seems sentimental and hyperbolic, a well-meaning attempt to assert the pervasive importance of Presley’s work. In the wake of Jackson’s sudden death, the quote is ultimately prescient. As the music industry spirals into financial oblivion and audiences continue to fragment, Michael Jackson will prove to be the final universally beloved pop star, the last vestige of the now antediluvian notion of the monoculture.
Several days after his death, my Twitter and Facebook feeds were no longer flooded with brief declarations of mourning, but with a reactionary wave of annoyed comments. In response to the seemingly endless media attention, my lesser friends and acquaintances complained, ignorantly downplaying Jackson’s cultural impact. These responses were, of course, inevitable as literally every news outlet reported and commented, radio stations and restaurants switched to all Jackson formats, his ever-changing face graced the cover of innumerable newspapers and magazines, and musicians of all kinds paid tribute in words and song.
To a generation of students born a decade or more after the deaths of Presley and Lennon, this public outpouring was utterly unprecedented. Perhaps there will be a similar outpouring after the passing of a rock luminary of the caliber of McCartney or Dylan, but I’m hard-pressed to think of any one of Jackson’s successors whose death would provoke such an enormous response. Consistent ‘90s chart successes like Garth Brooks or Mariah Carey have relatively small, segmented fan bases, and virtually none of the artistic influence.
By now, Thriller‘s massive sales are legendary, but that landmark is only a part of Jackson’s success. From his debut in 1970 with the Jackson 5 until his career stalled in the mid-‘90s, Jackson had unprecedented chart success on the R&B, Pop, and Rock charts. His appeal transcended radio formats and famously integrated MTV. Because of the Internet and the ceaselessly growing number of outlets for exposure to new music, this level of success is now all but impossible. Few artists can hope for success—or even name recognition—with a wide audience, as the Top 40 no longer functions as a useful barometer of the labyrinthine musical landscape.
Even if an artist could match Jackson’s immense talent and ambition, the infrastructure simply does not exist to match his massive success. Not only will we never agree on artist as we agreed on Jackson, we will likely never even be as aware of an artist as we were aware of Jackson.