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...

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