Six months after getting its first black president, America has its first black Princess Di. We slide into Independence Day with our heads held unusually high. In the land of limitless impossibilities, not even being an anti-Semitic child molester keeps you from attaining royal status.
You see it coming, of course. The piles of flowers on the wayside; the midnight candle vigils and crowds swaying to the old recordings; the conspiracy theories; the networks and their instant logos. Later on, the resolution in the House of Representatives naming whatever day that was in his honor. The stamp. The commemorative coin from the Franklin Mint. The books in his honor. The books about the conspiracy theories. The 10,000-word New Yorker profile. And the dozens and dozens of CD rereleases of every squawk he issued in the presence of a microphone.
CNN is always the first to put up a flashy logo … like the Superbowl logo or that adorning presidential elections. But with it came the clash of messages that newspaper layout men used to call “tombstoning” (stories so closely aligned on the page that their different headlines almost read one to the other). Before his death was even confirmed, CNN put up this:
“MICHAEL JACKSON HOSPITALIZED” “OBAMA PUSHES HEALTH CARE REFORM”
Now that I think of it, would you hurry that up a bit, Mr. President?
How else can you tell that we have created the first black Princess Di? Well, Jesse Jackson showed up. But he shows up at everything; this time we were blessed with m’man Al Sharpton, looking a bit gaunt now that he’s shed a few pounds. Martin Luther King Jr. was unable to attend, but his “I Have a Dream” speech made it into CNN as part of the Jackson coverage.
What other celebs came for the coronation? Well, everyone came, even poor old Mike Wallace. It’s now Day Three and the electronic media is still so hot for talking heads with Jackson expertise they’re probably put out a call for the guy who cleaned up after the giraffes at Neverland.
In fact, the only one missing is Elton John. I would like to think that his absence means he’s holed up revising “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” for the current circumstance.
But even without an Elton presence, the black Princess Di will long be lauded with tributes, memorials, and annual public celebration/mourning. His cardiac arrest will be scrutinized with the ferocity accorded that doomed auto in the Paris tunnel. And, as usual, the pharmaceutical industry will be among the culprits. You will amuse us with such an accusation, won’t you, Rush?
Look, Michael Jackson was a superb entertainer, but he was an entertainer. He was no prophet or leader or visionary. (For that matter, apart from her laudable charity work, Diana Spencer was little more than inoffensive arm candy.) The compilation of her insights and sayings remains as elusive as “The Book of Irish Porn Stars.”
Jackson’s contribution was to adapt the superficial songs and glitzy conventions of Motown to a time frame, MTV and the early Reagan years, that had a newly created ability, music videos, to magnify them. One cultural emblem of the early days of trickle-down was “Miami Vice,” with its display of pop rock, fashion, ill-gotten gain, and cocaine. Another was Michael Jackson’s moonwalk. Not quite original to “the King of Pop,” that celebrated move was previously known as “the backslide” and used extensively by Marcel Marceau in the 1950s, among others.
But Jackson was popular, and from therein sprouts a familiar tune. The talking heads cite his great popularity as evidence of his talent. I’ve heard this one before. Back in the day, there was a ghastly, critically lambasted rock group named Grand Funk Railroad. They were very popular, and their prickly manager cited their album sales as evidence of their greatness. I was prominent among the critical lambasters, and the Wall Street Journal called to get my reaction to his claim. I said, “Mussolini was popular too,” they printed it in a front page feature, and I heard about it for months thereafter.
Jackson was a master of non-ironic pop R&B. Had he not become an unpunished fondler of little boys, redefined nouveau riche, and developed an extravagant taste for embarrassingly public self-mutilation, he would today be moonwalking across tiny stages at second-rate Vegas casinos.
What does this say about fame in America? Nothing that you don’t already know. It just says it louder.