Saturday, June 27, 2009

Is death just the start for the Michael Jackson industry?

A few hours after the death of Elvis Presley in 1977, as his family were sitting around Graceland shocked and weeping, Colonel Tom Parker turned up. He hadn't been closely involved in Presley's affairs at that time, preferring to spend his time gambling. It was Parker who galvanised the shattered family with the words "this changes nothing".

Even he can't have known how right he was. When Presley died there was no etiquette for handling the death of a rock superstar. The media weren't sure if they were dealing with a washed-up has-been or a figure who was still relevant. I don't think Downing Street felt the need to make a statement. "People" magazine, America's foremost title about entertainment and celebrity, could have put his face on the cover but didn't, reasoning that he no longer meant that much to the average American. I happened to be in Memphis that year and visited Graceland to look at the grave. You could just walk into the grounds. There were no conducted tours and very few souvenir shops. The massive resurgence of interest in Elvis took some time to gather. The Elvis impersonators in their white suits took a while to get their act together. Dead Elvis was eventually more popular and more profitable than Live Elvis but it wasn't immediate.

When John Lennon was shot three years later the news organisations were primed by the Presley experience. The wall-to-wall coverage of his death was encouraged by the fact that he was both British and American, therefore both nations claimed some kind of ownership of him, politicians and public moralists could persuade themselves he was a key thinker for our times, his murder threw up all kinds of questions about random violence and the levers of the media were being pulled by people who had grown up adoring the Beatles and everything they stood for. At the end of December 8th 1980, after having gone through a day of hacking out tributes, a remark of Annie Nightingale's on the TV set me bawling. I wasn't crying for John Lennon, of course. I was crying for myself. Lost youth, good times, perspective, all that kind of thing. These things trigger something in us that needs to come out eventually. The Princess of Wales was not a rock star but the reaction to her death was on the scale of Lennon's but this time with a previously unfamiliar hysteria thrown in. Even the people who were flinging roses at her hearse in the Finchley Road on that mad day probably think better of it now. But at that time there was a pent-up desire for an extravagant, apparently un-British show of emotion. It was the kind of thing that used to be sublimated via religion or dancing round the maypole. In the TV age it was delivered via the box.

Judging by the way that Google almost broke yesterday under the strain I think it's fair to say that Michael Jackson's was the first death of a massive star in the internet age. TV and radio suddenly look and sound very quaint, huffing and puffing in the wake of the story, trying to assemble talking heads to say anything meaningful; even as they are talking people are coming up with new angles and implications. What happens to the kids? Where does this leave the London shows? Are his mother and father speaking to each other? Do you think these shows will actually happen in some strange animatronic form? How long will Sony leave it before the TV ads start? Bet they're glad they didn't auction the personal effects a month or two back. Does McCartney get the ATV catalogue back? I hear the funeral is going to be Muslim. What religion was he? Will Neverland be reopened to the public? How many people are working on one-shots right now? And so on.

Is there anything wrong with that? Well, it doesn't represent us at our most worthy but it does represent us at our most human. In the wake of any death in any family human beings have a huge desire to just sit down and talk about it. They may be talking about the deceased. They may be grasping the opportunity to talk about something they rarely talk about, which is life. They may just want to gossip. Thanks to the internet you can now take a seat in the world's largest living room with millions of souls who are similarly fascinated and listen to discussions you might not wish to instigate yourself. Because a lot's changed since Colonel Parker's pronouncement in 1977. Parker was essentially a small-time thinker. Thirty years later, with the technology at the disposal of the entertainment industry, death can be just the beginning. I'm sure there are people working on it right now.

This post is also on The Word site. I've written a piece about Michael Jackson which is in today's Independent.


  1. Excellent stuff David. I think, and you touched on it when you mentioned the Diana funeral, that the lack of a religious base in most people's lives is one of the reasons for these mass outpourings of emotion when public figures die. It's an opportunity to feel a coming together, a shared experience and feeling for something beyond oneself. I'm certainly not advocating a return to religious certainties, I veer between dubious agnosticism and angry atheism myself, but it's clear that some sort of group emotional experience at a higher level than the individual is very important to most people.

  2. Last night I hosted an award show ( at which the campaign manager for Obama won an unprecedented two Grands Prix for coordinating the greatest piece of mass communication and mobilisation ever seen. He flew in from Washington with an hour to spare especially to receive the Award, even gracefully agreeing to our rules of no speeches. He was well received. By far the biggest cheer of the night had taken place two hours earlier, however, when the compere walked on to a blast of Billie Jean. Go figure.

  3. I've not been to your blog for quite some time, having been seduced by that hussy Twitter and other such frivolous media. Your article about Michael Jackson's passing reminded me of what I miss in the "new social networking tools": substance.

    Your article gave a wonderful historical perspective to MJ's death, but missed one essential link: Jackson was made big not only through master showmanship and expertly produced albums, but by the then new medium of music videos. Your very appropriate observations about technology in the entertainment industry would have been complete with a reference to Jackson as a child of the MTV age.

  4. Don't think I mentioned his singing either. Or his dancing.