Given his recklessly eccentric and peripatetic personal life, Michael Jackson’s premature death seems almost foreordained -- one of those deaths Yeats had in mind when he wrote of a friend’s lost son: “What made us dream that he could comb gray hair?”
Still, the global outpouring of grief and the frenzy of public attention focused since Thursday on Jackson’s death is an acknowledgment not only of his popularity but of the reach and influence of America’s most successful export: popular culture. Jackson was an icon and, in the end, perhaps, a prisoner of that now all-pervasive, world-girdling force.
American popular culture’s triumphant appeal around the world is the product of several forces: First among them is this country’s historic aversion to assigning distinct values to high and low culture. Some would say the result has been a pervasive Philistinism -- that, as Oscar Wilde put it, “America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between.” Others would say that a level playing field has opened high culture -- literature and classical music, for example -- to a valuable cross-fertilization with popular media and made it more vigorous by forcing it to compete for its audience.
The real strength of American popular culture, in fact, is its democratic impulse -- a willingness to take into account the reality that, for most people, entertainment is an end in itself. American entertainment bows to what economists call “consumer sovereignty,” and Jackson’s popularity, with its demonstrable impact on music, dance and fashion, was a clear example of that.
That accounts for the fervor that has the performer’s fans organizing candlelight vigils around his star on Hollywood Boulevard and mass “moonwalks” in London. But what explains the saturation media coverage of Jackson’s death -- coverage that crowded out virtually every other news story since midday Thursday? Friday, for example, was an extraordinarily busy news day: Repression tightened dangerously in Iran, and President Obama traded words with his Iranian counterpart; the brewing crisis with North Korea bubbled along; the House passed major legislation on climate change; and, in California, the budget crisis took another suicidal turn.
Yet on cable TV and on newspaper websites, it was all Michael, all the time. So, how did a pop singer heavily in debt and desperately hoping for a comeback, one who hadn’t really sold any music for years, one who was best known for his bizarre life, obsession with cosmetic surgery and for the allegations of pedophilia against him, become in death the most beloved media figure since JFK?
To understand, you need to go back to that all-conquering popular culture -- and its indispensable adjunct, the cult of celebrity -- and consider the de facto Faustian bargain into which the American news media is sliding.
America’s serious news media -- whether print, broadcast or cable -- are in the grip of a collective nervous breakdown. Embracing popular culture and its icons seems somehow therapeutic on several levels: It appears to address charges that serious media are elitist, as well as the manifest indifference of younger readers and viewers to conventional news. Then there’s the fact of simple, brute commerce; popular culture in the form of film, music and TV now provides an outsized share of the financially strapped media’s advertising revenue. Finally, there’s that source of the news media’s anxiety and confusion -- and that great enabler of popular culture -- the Internet.
When Jackson’s death was first reported, traffic across the Internet spiked to virtually unprecedented levels. Google’s search engine slowed to a crawl; Yahoo reported “one of the biggest things” in its history; social networks Twitter and Facebook nearly collapsed under the weight of traffic. This newspaper experienced 12 million page views at its website, apparently because it was widely credited with confirming the death.
Whatever they say, many newspaper editors and TV news producers have begun to allow website hits and social media volume to function as a kind of sub rosa ratings system whose numbers dictate coverage and the play of news stories. What’s wrong with that? For one thing, it leads to the sort of irrational excess we’ve all been through since Thursday. No reasonable editor or producer should ignore the kind of public interest we’re seeing. But surrendering utterly to it ultimately undercuts what’s genuinely valuable about serious news media.
A serious newspaper or broadcast news outlet must simultaneously be a mirror and a window to its audience -- a look at themselves and an opening to the wider world.