Michael Jackson vs. the news

There's meaningful, there's epic and there's revolutionary. What about all three?

Friday, June 26, 2009

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 family 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 hear?

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 possible.

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.

Mark Morford

Mark Morford's column appears every Wednesday and Friday on SFGate. Contact him here. To get on the notification list for this column, click here and remove one article of clothing. To get on Mark's personal mailing list (appearances, books, blogs, yoga and more), click here and remove three more. His website is right here.

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