Saturday, June 27, 2009

Planet Michael



Over forty years, Michael Jackson proved he knew how to take center stage. On Thursday he showed he knew how to exit the stage, too. Jackson’s joyous, macabre hold on the popular imagination was so total that when he passed on Thursday afternoon in Los Angeles, hundreds danced under the marquee of the Apollo Theater in Harlem; hundreds of people, black or white, laughing and in tears, singing the songs that made him the most influential figure in pop-music history.

He jacked up cell-phone traffic and damn near crashed the Internet; AT&T reported that it was sending text messages at a rate of 65,000 per second in the hours after the news broke. Google went into “self-protective mode” after being flooded with searches related to nothing more complex than the singer’s name.


Now comes the postmortem. Less than 24 hours after the word went out that he was dead, the speculation’s begun on what brought on the demise of a man at the heartbreaking age of 50. Jackson’s long known to have abused prescription drugs; some are darkly invoking the idea of a departure like Elvis, with narcotics prescribed by, if not administered by, an unknown doctor feelgood.

MJ’s passing leaves a number of questions about his three children, the oldest an impressionable 12 years old. The wrangling over their custody, and ugly insinuations about their biological provenance, has already started.

And Michael’s death effectively creates a California Estate Lawyers’ Full Employment Act; resolving his financial condition — a farrago of suits, countersuits, unpaid bills and obligations — could tie up attorneys for months or years to come.

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So now he belongs to the fans and, absolutely, the lawyers. But Michael’s early departure also cements him to the ages. Like Louis, Miles, Bing, Sinatra, Trane and Elvis, Michael is now in the hall of the immortals and, on the basis of commercial impact, may be the first among equals. History knows Michael Jackson on a first-name basis from now on.

The lucrative value of his image, its merchandising potential, will make him more of a marketable presence now than he was before. It’s been said: death can be a brilliant career move; witness the still-thriving catalogs of some of those in the rock pantheon of untimely departures: Buddy, Jimi, Janis, Elvis, Bob and Kurt.

Amazon.com reported Thursday having exhausted its presumably large cache of Michael Jackson albums and DVDs; eBay saw a big spike in its traffic, caused largely by items of Jackson memorabilia, their worth ghoulishly escalated in an instant. That $500 million debtload Michael was facing may be more easily retired now than when Michael was alive.

And eventually, Hollywood loves an icon: Sure as night follows day, right now, a scriptwriter there is sketching out the first outlines of what will become a Major Motion Picture.

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But ultimately, it’s bigger than iconography and marketing and royalties and the images we associate with them. Like Louis and Ray and Miles and James, Michael changed the sound of our sound.

As you’d expect, the immediate vacuum of his absence was filled by the media, a clamor for clicks, viewers and readers that goes on today.

But with his suddenly inescapable ubiquity in the mediascape — All Michael All the Time — Michael Jackson became visibly again what he’s always been (more surreptitiously) for years: not just a component of popular culture but one of its central, indispensable molecules whose absence would change the sound we hear, dull the beats we move to, dilute the spectacles we’ve become accustomed to.

Sir Mix-a-Lot said it Friday from Seattle, put the Michael Jackson phenomenon in a context that has less to do with adoration of a public figure and more to do with participation in that figure’s vision: “He was that planet we all wanted to land on.”

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And ultimately we did land on that planet, or we discovered, on Thursday afternoon, that Michael’s planet is the one we’re already on. The one that Michael’s sound unified. The one that Michael’s music proves we share. The one whose spiritual oxygen is permanently juiced by a voice and musical talent the likes of which we will never see again — but which will be with us every day, everywhere, forever.

That’ll do for a snapshot definition of timelessness. Need another one? There may be no better proof of Michael Jackson’s impact in the world of music and culture, the irrepressible joy of his sound amid the horrors of our modern life, than what’s happening in world capitals from London to Berlin to Beijing in his honor, and what happened in flashmobs in London and Liverpool ...

And what happened spontaneously and boisterously in New York City, where it all began.

Three hours after he was dead, Michael Jackson was live at the Apollo.

You want timeless? Top that.
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Image credits: New York Times: © 2009 The New York Times Company. RIP glove: Via MSNBC. Israeli-language front page: Yedioth Ahronoth.

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