Man in the Mirror

A friend of mine is a correspondent for KCET, the Los Angeles PBS station. A few days ago, he told me that he had been assigned to cover the Michael Jackson memorial held yesterday at Staples Center and that he was not looking forward to it at all. Aside from the logistical nightmare of getting through the traffic jams and police barricades, he didn't get what all the fuss is about. "Sure, Jackson was a good entertainer," he said, "but was he really important enough for all this?" He also wondered why so many people can become so active over Jackson's death—showing up at the gates of Neverland Ranch and the Jackson family home, signing up for tickets to the memorial—but not over much more important issues such as health care.

My first response was, "Hey, if you don't want to go, I'll gladly take your place!" It's not that I'm a huge Michael Jackson fan—I'm not. Rather, I'm fascinated by the sociological aspects of this moment in history. Why did Jackson's passing resonate so deeply with so many people and completely overshadow important world events like the Iranian uprising and a military coup in Honduras?

Perhaps it's because Jackson's music provided part of the soundtrack to millions of lives. His songs were playing on the radio or CD or iPod during important personal moments, thus becoming associated with those moments and forever burned into memory.

Or maybe it's his lyrics, some of which are truly meaningful—"Heal the World," "Black or White," and "Man in the Mirror" come to mind, though I always thought he should have taken more of his own advice from that last one when it came to his alleged behavior with prepubescent boys. Of course, many other of his songs are nothing more than pop drivel—"Thriller," "Bad," "Get on the Floor." Sure, these are great dance tunes, but lots of other musicians have recorded great dance tunes and never inspired this level of adoration and grief at their passing.

Jackson was clearly a tortured soul, a man/boy who was never satisfied with his appearance, even after many plastic surgeries that left him looking downright freakish. Is the public's lurid fascination with his increasingly strange visage and even stranger demeanor a factor in the response to his death?

Many blame the media for the ubiquitous coverage, but I think it's simply a response to what the public wants. Members of the media know what attracts eyeballs, which is, after all, what they're selling to advertisers. Even in death, Jackson is being used to make money, just as he was in life.

The memorial went smoothly, and millions of people saw it thanks to a single high-def feed that was made available to media outlets. Will the 24/7 barrage now abate? Don't count on it. For weeks and months to come, I'm sure there will be endless stories about the drugs he was taking—and who prescribed them—as well as his will, his finances, and his children, who, by some accounts, aren't even his biologically or legally.

Michael Jackson has been called a cultural icon, the greatest entertainer who ever lived, and a total wacko. Whatever you think of him, you are witness to a rare historical—or hysterical—moment that brought millions around the world together. Would that those same millions could join together for a more substantive cause like eliminating war, poverty, and crime. Jackson sang about such things, so perhaps his death might inspire those who mourn him to action. One can always hope...

If you have an audio/video question for me, please send it to

Share | |
Lynn Velazquez's picture

That Michael Jackson's death has consumed the masses does deserve its own meta-consideration. Perhaps the mass outpouring of emotion is a way to safely vent feelings that we all experience but cannot express. Perhaps Jackson's public life gave us a mirror to see ourselves too; and to safely reflect on what we see in ourselves. Good, bad, black, white, we are all complex, just like Jackson. His talent has brought joy, his reputation has brought anger, his death has brought sorrow. This is common ground for all of us.

Scott Wilkinson's picture

Very well said!

Colin Robertson's picture

While I didnt catch the memorial, I was saddened by his death. To me, he was probably the single biggest figure of the 80's, and it was fascinating to see how insanely popular he was. I also thought he was an incredibly talented artist. So while he was a flawed person, in the future, I think people will look back at his achievements, and still be amazed by them, in the same way that other socially flawed artists are looked upon, such as Vincent van Gogh.

Tom Norton's picture

If history is any guide, Vegas will be eventually be awash with Michael Jackson impersonators. And the Jackson family will sue for a share of the proceeds. You read it here first.

David Vaughn's picture

Tom...good point Scott, the very first LP I ever bought as a kid was "Off the Wall" and I considered myself a big fan until the early 90s. Then the man went off the deep end, his music lost its magic, and he became an embarrassment due to his off the stage actions. I'm not happy the man died, and frankly, I pity his life the last 20 or so years. To thing, from the time he was five, he couldn't go out in public without being mobbed by fans...that's probably the reason he was a little "off the wall" in the end. I feel for his kids because they lost their Dad, but the media attention is embarrassing to me considering all that's going on in the country and the world. Soldiers are dying in Afghanistan in a major offensive and no one is paying attention because of an entertainers death. David

Jonathan's picture

I think it is bizarre that people that have no personal relationship with a celebrity, would alter their personal life to mourn for someone they do not know. He died. Okay, everyone dies. Does it matter? Worry about your family and close friends. The people that you surround yourself with are the one that enrich your life.

Isiah's picture

Scott, I wonder why you and others responding to the death of Michael Jackson decide to use what people are experiencing as an excuse to put forth your opinion on what these people should be putting their attention toward? Michael Jackson was a part of many people's lives for almost 40 years. As you said, he accompanied many of their experiences. We have many celebrities who have been a part of our lives. I just learned about Walter Cronkite's death the other day. He had a similar outpouring of grief from strangers. They mentioned his involvement in the kennedy assassination, the moon landing and the watergate coverup and how he dealt with it. But I haven't heard anyone say how they should stop praising his accomplishments when we have wars, health care and other crises to worry about. Please stop using people's grief over something they felt so strongly about as a reason to put forth political ideas.

Scott Wilkinson's picture

Isiah, first of all, this is my blog, which is by its nature opinion-driven, so of course I'm going to express my opinion in it. I encourage others to express their opinion in response, as you have done, even if they don't agree with me. I, too, was saddened by the death of Walter Cronkite, but his passing resulted in nothing like the Jackson phenomenon, which is what I was commenting on here, so the two really aren't comparable at all. And I never said that we should stop praising Jackson's accomplishments, so I don't know where you got that. Finally, what you call my "policital ideas" were merely a suggestion that those who are grief-stricken over Jackson's death might consider doing something about the social ills he sang about. Such action would be the ultimate tribute to one of the most beloved entertainers of our time. Is it political to want an end to war, poverty, and crime? I don't think so.

Maurice Fluellen's picture

Hey Scott, I wonder if your friend from KCET felt the same way when Elvis died. Hmmm.

Enter your Sound & Vision username.
Enter the password that accompanies your username.