You already know which kind of event, which sort of
dramatic happening, which kind of ill-fated death
and historic melodrama we as a culture value far,
far more than any other. You already know which will
hold us in thrall for days and months on end, which
causes more tears and heartbreak and which kind of
event will spawn books and movies and tributes and
earnest memories by the million until we ourselves
pass on to the hereafter, smiling and dancing and
humming a desperately catchy tune.
Hint: it's not the new Iran revolution. It's not,
say, the young and idealistic
Neda Agha Soltan, that iconic Iranian protester
shot to death by militiamen on the streets of Tehran
and then made into a near-perfect martyr, mostly
because she was beautiful and photogenic and
light-skinned and her horrific death was caught on
video and spread all over YouTube, and therefore
makes ideal, bloodstained copy for news agencies and
political movements worldwide.
It's not President Obama's historic push for
health care reform, currently being beaten to death
in various congressional back rooms. It's certainly
not yet another aging white Republican politician
weeping to the TV cameras about his love of God and
irresistible Argentinean vaginas. Like that
ever truly matters.
Who the hell cares about any of that? Who needs
it right now? Pop culture just died. Didn't you
First, it was the beauty. How many countless
millions of feverish boyhood fantasies were spawned
by 1970's Farrah Fawcett? How many of our admittedly
vapid and slightly sexist, yet somehow also wondrous
and utterly divine ideas of lust and desire and
perfect all-American prettiness were inspired by her
uncomplicated sparkle, that Barbie-doll hair?
I am unashamed to say, I had
that poster on my wall. Most every male I know
of that generation had that poster on his wall. It
was some sort of boyhood law, a requirement, a key
to the Kingdom of Testosterone. Chances are you
don't even need to click that link to know which
poster I'm talking about. Chances are you can close
your eyes and see it in a split second, and sigh.
Sex and beauty and Americana and teeth and sex and
hope and hairdryers and carefree love and bathing
suits and shimmer and sex. Farrah made it all
But even that glorious, soft-focus icon is no
match for the King of Pop. There is no contest.
It's nearly impossible to grasp, really. Michael
Jackson's impact on the popular culture at large
cannot really be measured, though many will try,
using every gauge of success and influence we can
think of: record sales, money earned, global reach,
hit singles, controversy, tabloid coverage, endless
comparisons to Elvis and The Beatles, you name it.
But it's all sort of futile. After all, the raw
data of Michael Jackson pales in comparison to the
truly significant numbers, like how many countless
millions of people worldwide have danced and sung
along and found pleasure in an MJ tune in their
lives, can recite lyrics and mimic the dance moves
and tell you exactly where they were when they first
witnessed the moonwalk, the glove, "Billie Jean,"
the "Thriller" video.
How many millions rushed home on hearing the news
of his sudden death and put on "Off the Wall" and
cranked it full volume, and swam in the memories,
and are still doing so, right this moment? They say
pop culture is generally meaningless and transitory
and has no lasting effect, lowers the bar of
discourse and poisons the intellect, is the junk
food of the human soul. All very true. Mostly.
Let us pose the impossible question: How do we
measure what's truly important? How do we parse and
separate and decide? There is bloodshed and death
and revolution happening, right now, in the streets
of a fiery foreign country. More than one, actually.
There is meltdown and oppression and disease and
countless huge-hearted people working against
impossible odds to improve the lives of others in
immeasurably honest, profound ways.
And yet over here is someone like Michael
Jackson, his music, his dancing, his genius, his odd
persona, well, it's like it's some different realm
entirely. Strip away the cheese and the tabloid and
the bizarre, freakish spectacle of his rather tragic
life, and what's left?
Well, you might say it's a kind of sheer
happiness, a kind of freedom like you can't even
speak about because it's not really an intellectual
thing. It's just a simple joy. It's also fairly
essential to our survival.
You are left with the image, the feeling, of
hundreds of millions of humans laughing and smiling
and dancing with friends and lovers, all to one
person's gift of music. Put it this way: billions of
humans disagree about the nature of God. But
everyone knows what the moonwalk is.
One final, tiny example: As I was writing this
column, I received, in my in-box, a mere handful of
hours after the news of MJ's death hit the newswires
and just before every radio station, music blog,
music fan, music television in the known universe
switched gears in an instant and started playing MJ
nonstop in memoriam, with sequined flags at
half-mast, I received a very strange invitation.
It's to something called the "Scandinavian
Mid-Summer Party" in New York. It is, apparently, "a
night of upscale networking, partying and bowling
(!) with professionals and businessmen eager to
enjoy this traditional Scandinavian celebration;
members of the Swedish, Finnish, Norwegian, Danish
and Estonian business and social community in the
Tri-state area will join us for the night."
Well gosh, thanks for thinking of me, I thought.
There are images of idyllic smiling blond Danish
girls in pigtails and scarves and perfect IKEA
teeth. They say "Mid-Summer is the most popular time
of the year in Scandinavia. Houses in Scandinavia
are decorated with hearths and flower garlands;
people then dance while listening to traditional
folk songs known to all." It says some other stuff
too, but my eyes had already glazed over.
Well, almost. Just as my finger hovered over the
Delete key, something caught my eye.
The invitation had been altered. The organizers
had apparently changed the description of the
evening's events. No more Scandinavian folk music.
Along with the billiards and bowling and drunk
Estonian businessmen, they will now "pay our
respects to the King of Pop by playing his amazing
music all night." They asked all guests to bring an
iPod with favorite MJ songs. You know, just like
they did in the old country of Scandinavia. Just
like they're doing across the entire planet, as you
read these words, right now.
Now that's revolutionary.
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