The death of a pop culture icon is always an event; and Michael Jackson’s fame equaled that of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe. He was world-famous and beloved for most of his career.
And now, like them, he has left this earth prematurely. His death has given his name a new life; once again Michael Jackson is selling newspapers and record numbers of albums — and making TV history. CNN’s ratings shot up a whopping 973% on Thursday — MSNBC by 330% and Fox by 243%. Interest in his death brought the Internet to its knees. Crowds have gathered from London and Paris to Tokyo and Beijing, mourning his death and celebrating his music with singing and dancing.
Why? Why is a man with such a checkered past and bizarre personal life being mourned so intensely? It seems illogical for so many to care deeply about a dead singer.
But when an icon of our youth dies, it’s not just a person that is gone. It’s a passing of an era. It means our childhood is that much more out of reach and time is moving by us quickly. For us 40-something baby boomers — children of the ’70s and the ’80s — pop culture was inescapable. We loved our pop icons. We idolized them. We bought the lunchboxes and T-shirts and saw their movies and acted out scenes from TV shows. We joined their fan clubs and hung posters on our walls. So many of our personal memories have some sort of pop culture reference attached to them.
Michael Jackson is being fondly remembered because his music evokes a time in our life when he was part of it. When someone who represents the face — or more importantly, the soundtrack — of our youth dies, we mourn, even if that person is no longer the beloved celebrity of our past. We don’t mourn Michael Jackson so much as we mourn the days when we were entranced by his music and his persona.
We mourn because part of our past just got dimmer. As we get older, memories can fade as easily as photographs. The media barrage of retrospectives brings then back — Jackson Five lunchboxes, songs played at high school dances, sequined gloves as a fashion statement, and the much-hyped premiere of the lengthy premiere of “Thriller” on the still-new MTV channel.
Those of us who feel this nostalgia and experience sadness at Jackson’s passing are not trying to make him out to be anything more than what he was.
There were three distinct Michael Jacksons — the ABC Jackson, the “Thriller” Jackson and the Neverland Jackson. Regardless of what kind of monster lurked inside the Neverland Michael Jackson, the two others left the world with an entertainment legacy, and that’s what so many people are celebrating as they remember him.
Jackson’s death is our generation’s “Where were you?” Like the death of Elvis before this, millions of people will later tell stories about where they were when they heard the news.
If you want to know why more isn’t being made of the fact that he was an alleged pedophile, the answer lies in all those people who make up the 973% jump in CNN’s ratings, interested remembering the Michael who entertained, the Michael who “moonwalked,” the Michael who sang “ABC.”
They don’t want to — right now — tune in to CNN or MTV and see the plastic-faced Michael. They don’t want to see the Michael who put masks over his children’s faces. They know all about what happened at Neverland Ranch — despite his acquittal of child molestation charges — and how his abuse of drugs likely led to his untimely death. Those are not the things they want to remember at this moment; they want to relive the joy his music inspired and the memories attached to the times of their lives when he was popular and successful and adored.
Perhaps what a lot of us are really mourning is the lost potential of Michael Jackson. His death allows those of us to pay our respect to that distant Michael that we lost so long ago, but the presence of the most recent incarnation of Michael Jackson didn’t allow us to mourn.
What is happening now is a form of closure that allows us to celebrate the boy and the boy-like man we loved, before he became a person we no longer knew.
No one is dismissing or ignoring what Michael Jackson became. We are simply mourning the passing of the phenomenon he once was.