The day after the death of Michael Jackson, I came across a heartfelt plea on Facebook.
“Would celebrities please stop dying? That is all.”
The last few months have been quite a busy time for the obit writers. Still, Jacko dying just hours after Farrah Fawcett was unusual. Earlier this year we had the even more bizarre death of Jade Goody. Not that the demise of a young woman from cancer is bizarre or, unfortunately, all that uncommon. But it was a surprising dénouement to a life that, when assessed, was as strange as it was short. This year has also seen the passing of Wendy Richards and Mollie Sugden. In January it was Jeremy Beadle.
I had the odd experience of breaking the tragedy of Beadle’s death to my sister last week. Now a native of Kentucky, news of the prankster’s passing had not reached rural USA. She was genuinely upset, even more so when I dropped Tony Hart into the conversation. We haven’t spoken since.
Jackson’s demise, the first to be given the 24-hour rolling news treatment, will probably be the defining death of 2009. In fact, it might be the defining death of the decade, his loss – in terms of celebrity – perhaps only comparable to that of Diana in the late Nineties. However, there were huge differences in how the two deaths were reported.
Twelve years ago, news was conveyed via the TV, with schedule’s interrupted by lengthy bulletins. The web, though out of its infancy, was still in short trousers and by no means the ubiquitous tool of today. Mass social networking sites were still some years away.
The morning of Diana’s death, I remember waking up to find most channels carrying a picture of the princess and her dates – 1961 to 1997. The story then unfolded via intermittent news reports. It was a death that we reacted to, informed as to the what, where and how by a series of somber newscasters.
Jacko’s death was far more involving. News was conveyed via multiple platforms. We all seemed to be taking part as the drama unfurled. Modern communications are such that you had just as much chance of receiving the news via a text, catching a reference on Facebook or reading a Tweet as seeing it on TV.
Once people had got wind that Jacko might be moon walking through the purly gates (he was found innocent, after all) then the full machinery of 21st century media cranked into life. Not only did we have access to rolling news, but we could choose which rolling news service to watch.
I spent the night flitting between Sky, the Beeb, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. Online, Twitter and Facebook lit up like a hairdo on a Pepsi shoot. Millions posted tributes, jokes, condolences and the occasional comedy headline (“The Jackson Four” anyone?).
The day after I headed to Glastonbury and got taking to some of the media people who were at the festival when Jacko keeled over. Apparently, BBC employees, victims of Auntie’s commitment to comprehensive coverage, were running around the media tent desperate to find music journalists who could offer considered opinion on live TV. Finding music journalists at a music festival was the easy part. Finding music journalists who were anything approaching sober proved far more difficult.
Anyone who saw the Beeb’s reports from Glasto on that Thursday night will have noticed some of the experts were comically twitchy. One could barely string two words together.
That Friday, revelers were already wearing Jacko-inspired garb. The “I shot Michael Jackson” T-shirt proved very popular. One festival wit erected a big sign saying “Michael Jackson O2 tickets – Half-price!”
A week later and the memorial service was available on the BBC – TV and online – as well as in full high definition on Sky Arts HD. Not only did the Arts channel provide a clearer resolution for our collective despair, but it also benefited from the absence of Paul Gambucini’s turgid commentary.
The service, which costs $1.4billion, was paid for by the Californian state, despite Governor Schwarzenegger’s insistence that the treasury was close to bankrupt. The state piggy bank was empty, as was Jacko’s coffin if conspiracy theories are to be believed. We’ll never know. The cheque book may have opened but the lid remained firmly closed.
It was a large outlay for a memorial show, especially with state teachers under threat of redundancy due to California’s current coffer crisis. However, in LA the only real currency is celebrity, and in that Jackson had a long line of credit.
When it comes to sycophancy, the service proved once again that the USA is out on its own. The tone was set when the remaining Jackson Brothers entered with the coffin, each one wearing a single sequined glove. Preposterous.
Imagine the pallbearers at Mollie Sugden’s funeral entering the church sporting a pink rinse. It simply wouldn’t happen (although rumours persist that the vicar slipped in a reference to the church “pussy” during the eulogy).
The nadir of the ceremony came with the arrival of the Reverend Al Sharpton, a religious obfuscator who once ran as a Democratic nominee and, more recently, bathed in hot water over some misjudged comments towards Mormon Mitt Romney. A veteran of the civil rights movement, Sharpton built himself into a pulpit-pounding fury, hitting a crescendo by allying Jackson’s success with President Obama’s recent election.
That Michael Jackson opened the door to coloured artists is uncontroversial (even though Motown was in its last throws by the time the Jackson Five were being ushered on stage under the steely glare of Joe). But did Jackson really open the door for an Obama victory? It’s a stretch.
Sharpton also talked of Jackson as a liberating force for black America. His words may have carried more weight had they been for one of the other stars on the bill, particularly Stevie Wonder or Lionel Ritchie. Instead, they were about a man who, for the past thirty years, had tried his utmost to distance himself aesthetically from the people Sharpton claimed he had done so much to liberate.
As if to compound the farce, Sharpton then addressed Jacko’s kids, bellowing in his best preacher “there was nothing strange about your daddy”. As a man of God, Reverend Sharpton has made a living from lying to children. What harm could one more do?
In between, Jermaine Jackson reminded us all of why he was a backing singer, offering up a squeaky rendition of Smile. We were smiling aright… Also singing were Usher and Mariah Carey. Most of the others I didn’t recognise.
Perhaps the one lesson we should take from the peculiar life of Michael Jackson is that thrusting a child into the media spotlight at a tender age may have some damaging psychological consequences.
Welcome to the stage twelve-year-old Shaheen Jafargholi, a finalist in Britain’s Got Talent to perform in front of a TV audience estimated to be more than one billion. The irony was no doubt lost on those weeping behind their sunglasses in the darkened Staples Centre. Still, the youngster warbled his way impressively through Who’s Loving You.
The final act of Jacko’s public life was to exit stage left, following an understandably emotional tribute from his daughter. It was an almost serene end to a life that had been anything but. Those of us expecting the music to start, the lid to creak open and an exclusive performance of his new single were sadly left disappointed.