Truth be told, Michael Jackson never really did it for me. I do like some of the old Motown-era Jackson Five material, but his solo work I can take or leave alone. On the other hand, I can well understand the reaction from people who were seriously into him. When Warren Zevon died, I was so upset I could barely listen to his records for months afterwards.
So I’m not going to get into the whys and wherefores of Wacko himself. His musical work should be assessed by someone who’s got more of an interest in that sort of thing. All I know is that he was enormously successful, and he influenced lots of people who have also been successful, even if I have no real interest in them. I mean, I wouldn’t claim to be an expert on the oeuvre of Justin Timberlake, but I can tell a Michael Jackson tribute act when I see one. And as for his bizarre life story and Howard Hughes-style eccentricities, one can only hope he gets the biographer he deserves.
No, I just wanted to do a briefish rumination on the media and the fans. There is of course hardly any escaping him in the broadcast media today, and if you think the telly is bad you really should have been involuntarily exposed to Cool FM for several hours. We’ve had a good illustration of talk expanding to fill the available space, even when there weren’t any solid facts. The rampant speculation on the rolling news last night was one thing. And even then, you could spot two conflicting instincts – one to pay tribute to an iconic figure with many millions of zealous fans, the other cognisant of the fact that, now he’s dead, there are no legal restrictions on what you can say about him.
But this morning was even better. I knew you could rely on GMTV to always go for the lowest common denominator, and sure enough, a show that’s parodically celeb-centric at the best of times was on jawdropping form. One would have though the Queen had died, or a couple of planes had hit the World Trade Center. When I switched on over my porridge, it was going very roughly like this:
Carla Romano: And as you join us, the celebrity tributes are pouring in. Here’s one from Madonna. Here’s one from Liza Minelli. Here’s one from TV’s Ray Stubbs. Here’s one from Linsey Dawn McKenzie. And of course, there have been loads of texts and emails from you little people, and you can see them scrolling across the ticker at the bottom.
Ben Shepard: The autopsy won’t be taking place for several hours, so we don’t really have any gory details about the cause of death. But here’s Dr Hilary to fill up five minutes with some speculation.
Dr Hilary (for it is he): Well, Ben, I really don’t know the details of his medical history…
Shepard: Oh, come on.
Dr Hilary: …cardiac arrest blah blah blah prescription drugs yada yada yada doctors will have questions to answer.
Shepard: We’ll have more after these messages.
[Footage of young Jackson singing “Ben”. Then some chirpy ads, contrasting just a bit with the apocalyptic tone. Then we're back, to footage of Jackson singing “Beat It”.]
Romano: Now let’s go to Ross King in LA. Ross, what have you heard?
King: The word on the street is blah blah blah…
Romano: Really? Because when I was in LA, people were saying yada yada yada…
Shepard (with disturbing glint in eye): But I really want to hear more about this autopsy…
God love the British media. And by the way, while I can understand why Barack O’Bama would issue a statement, why in the name of perdition do we need to hear Gordon Brown and Rankin’ Dave Cameron give their thoughts on the matter? [Hat tip: Dave] It’s all a bit reminiscent of Mr Tony Blair’s creepy tribute to Frank Sinatra.
Now, as for the fans. To my mind, a great songwriter is one who you feel an almost psychic connection to, as if they’re expressing what you would say if you were articulate enough. I’ve enough experience of that eerie sensation that Warren or Leonard or Kate was inside my head to know exactly what the feeling is like. Very often, fans will form an intense attachment to their favourite artist, such that you have to keep remembering that “fan” is a contraction of “fanatic”. And the late Mr Jackson, massively successful artist as he was, has left behind an army of millions of fanatics.
What always strikes me about Michael Jackson fans is that there’s an appreciable subset thereof whose fanaticism goes well beyond the intense connection you’d expect from a much-loved artist. You know the type – the people who, once they get over their grief, might be digging out the pitchforks and flaming torches and going out to hunt down Martin Bashir, Jarvis Cocker and Weird Al Yankovic. A few of these guys, in my humble opinion, need their heads felt.
But my mind went back to that Bashir documentary, and I can’t get one image out of my head. That was a painting on the wall, this pastiche of The Last Supper:
You may think this just evidence of megalomania, but it’s plain that there are people who considered him a Christ-like figure, persecuted by the forces of darkness. And that he played up to the messianic expectations heaped on him. For some people, he came to fill a space in their lives that in another generation would have been filled by religion. Indeed, looking at these pranksters, how long can it be before someone does the same thing with serious intent?
Hail, farewell and cha’mone!