Where I Ruminate on the Death of Michael Jackson and the Culture of Celebrity

I was too old to ever really appreciate Michael Jackson. The Jackson Five were a pop novelty act to me, and by the time Michael came into his own with his biggest album Thriller I was already busy being a pastor and the father of an infant. Later in his life Michael became increasingly bizarre and creepy. The media loved his antics, but to me the fascination was akin to watching a car crash or a train wreck; you don’t feel you should be looking, but can’t take your eyes off it.

Now in death the media circus begins in earnest, as it has so often before when the celebrated die before their time: Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Anna Nichole Smith.

So I heard singer Celine Dion tell Larry King the other night that Michael Jackson’s death was like JFK’s in its public impact. I think this is pretty far-fetched, but if it is even remotely true it is a very bad sign indeed for the commonweal. America’s culture of celebrity (which is also one of our more successful exports) is bad for the soul of both individuals and societies.

I once heard Bill Coffin ask rhetorically, “Where are our statesmen?” And his answer was, “A society gets more of what it values, so in America we have a lot of really good basketball players.” We value celebrity, and so we get the wild popularity of American Idol and reality shows where people will degrade themselves just to be on TV. We even have celebrities who are famous for being famous, like Paris Hilton. At least Michael Jackson could sing and dance.

Now it’s always sad when someone dies too young in tragic circumstances, but we need to stand back and realize that Michael Jackson was not Ghandi or Mother Theresa, but a talented entertainer.

It is sad to say but we don’t celebrate the wise, the good, the true, the faithful as often as we celebrate the narcissistic, the beautiful, the outrageous, and the just plain weird.

The church’s notion of the faithful dead as the communion of saints (see my Mystic Sweet Communion) has been replaced in popular culture by the cult of dead celebrities whose lives for the most part serve more as cautionary tales than good examples.

My hometown newspaper, the Berkshire Eagle, gave Michael Jackson’s death the kind of front-page above the fold treatment that a presidential assassination or an act of war deserve. There are important stories to be told in our world, not the least of which is the daily starvation of thousands of people, many of them children. The culture of celebrity distracts us from this and other inconvenient truths. Michael Jackson’s own finest hour may have been in 1985 when he wrote and sang, “We are the World.” That was 24 years ago and the “brighter day” still awaits.

4 thoughts on “Where I Ruminate on the Death of Michael Jackson and the Culture of Celebrity

  1. >I agree, I've been wondering what all the fuss is about in the media. There are reports of major spikes traffic on Twitter and Facebook, but it seems to me that in recent years most of the interest in Jackson was based on his weirdness, not fandom, not musical appreciation. He was not a celebrity being "celebrated," he was a has-been about whom people had some morbid curiosity. The media reaction is way over the top, especially newspapers with full front-page treatment.

  2. >Well said, Rick. I grew up with the family music acts–Jackson 5 and Osmond Borthers and huddled around the dorm living TV to watch the Thriller video dubit on MTV. The music was good, the dancing phenomenal and the special efects and costuming always first rate. But teh personal life was disturbing. Maybe it's "our" fault–we put such expectations on celebrities and going from cute child star to King of Pop MJ never expereinced normal and had no barometer for his lifestyle. After he held the baby out the window some clever genius made an on-line arcade game called catch the baby where MJ would drop babies out different windos and you moved a basket to catch them… He was talented, yes, Tragic, yes. But he was no JFK, RFK, MLK Jr–people who truly worked for the transformation of our world and culture.Keep the good thoughts coming…Kim Kie

  3. >I guess I have a very different take on the death of dear Michael, Rick. I am sensitive to the cult of personality – the secular spirituality of this age – that has replaced authentic spirituality. And I am often sickened by the ghoulishness of the media in times such as these.At the same time, those who don't appreciate popular culture aren't attuned to what his tragic mix of vulnerability and beauty brought to the world (as you note in your introduction.) MJ is NOT the equivalent of Gandhi or Mother Teresa – such hyperbole is foolish and shallow – but too often we denigrate the role of the entertainer in advancing the cause of beauty in the world. And Michael gave us beauty in a way that reverberates in people throughout Africa, Asia, Europe and the America – in fact well beyond even our imagination.In a way, I see his beauty as soul food – a sign of both the blessings he shared with the world and our own desperate need for signs of hope in these hard time – so I don't want to minimize or even trivialize his gifts or death. Indeed, I would encourage relistening to his "Man in the Mirror."I give thanks to God for the gifts that were shared with us through Michael Jackson, I grieve his brokenness and am sad over his untimely death. Like Marvin Gaye before him there was depth and truth, flaw and sin all too close to the surface of this ambiguous public figure. There is probably more to say but… that's enough for now.

  4. >Thanks for this Rick – I whole heartedly agree.How many remember Mother Theresa's death? Not so many I'm afraid, because she died the same day as Princess Di. And we all remember what a media circus that was.It is a sad commentary on our cultural values to see what is lauded and remembered.I can appreciate Michael Jackson's gift for entertainment – musically, creatively – and the groundbreaking nature of his performances in the early 80's. But I don't think I can call it beautiful.

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