NOTE: I was going to weigh in about the Mark Sanford saga today, but the 24/7 news cycle has been going full steam and other events have overtaken that story for the time being. Like his wife, I’m not going to forget it, and I’ll return to that still-developing story soon.
I’ve been following the coverage of Michael Jackson’s death with interest this evening, and one of the things that struck me was both how fast the story spread and who got it when. The entertainment website TMZ.com reported the death of the 50-year-old singer an hour before the Los Angeles Times filed the report that the cable news channels viewed as authoritative. (My wife, a more astute media critic than I, said correctly that either TMZ would have the scoop of the year so far, or they’d be spectacularly wrong.)
A Google News check at about 7 p.m. EST revealed that more than 2,000 stories had already appeared on news websites, a figure that has grown to 5,909 as I write this about 3-1/2 hours later.
And a social media check reveals some things that are interesting. I’d say that the majority of my Facebook friends were born after Jackson and his brothers hit it big as the Jackson 5 in the early 1970s. And a significant portion of those probably don’t remember when “Thriller” was on the charts.
So I was actually suprised that many of these young people have acknowledged the man and his music in their “status updates,” but nearly as many seem to remember Jackson for his later-life weirdness, particularly the child molestation cases and all that plastic surgery. That’s too bad for them.
I can’t remember the context, but I remember making a comment to a class a few years back — more in jest than it should have been — “that there was a time when Michael Jackson was cool.” I wasn’t giving him enough credit. There was that time in the mid-1980s when he was the coolest. The single white glove, the moonwalk, he was something.
So I hope he’s ultimately remembered more for the music, all of which still holds up extremely well. The Jackson 5 stuff is energetic and inventive, far superior to a lot of the teeny-bopper stuff on the pop charts in the early Seventies. One of my favorites is “The Love You Save” which has a wonderful verse that goes:
Isaac said he kissed you
Beneath the apple tree
When Benjy held your hand
He felt electricity
When Alexander called you
He said he rang your chimes
You’re way ahead of your time.
I dare the Jonas Brothers to top that.
And the “Off the Wall” and “Thriller” albums, under the guiding hand of Quincy Jones, take it to another level. Those songs crackle with adult energy and vocal prowess. As some folks are saying this evening, those albums will be one of the reasons that Jackson will rank up there with Elvis and Sinatra in influence. (I heard a CNN interview this evening with the rapper Ginuwine, who cited him as a reason he went into the music business.)
The hits eventually tapered off — the last No. 1 was “You Are Not Alone” in 1995 — and his eccentric, tumultuous personal life eventually replaced the music as the focus of media attention. He was planning a comeback tour for later this year.
On this fast-moving news day there was also another celebrity passing that happened too soon. Actress Farrah Fawcett, 62, died of cancer earlier this morning, and sadly that has already gotten somewhat lost in the shuffle.
I think you have to be of a certain age, and probably male, to appreciate the Farrah phenomenon of the late Seventies. I was working nights on a sports desk and there was no such thing as a VCR when “Charlie’s Angels,” the TV show that made her famous, was in its heyday. So I never saw it except maybe on TV Land later in life — I don’t think anybody would mistake it for Ibsen or Tennessee Williams. And I never owned “The Poster” (Farrah in a red bathing suit), but certainly visited guys who did.
After “Charlie’s Angels,” Fawcett earned some critical respect for serious acting roles in TV movies on social issues — “The Burning Bed,” about an abused wife who kills her husband, is the one that comes to mind. But in recent years her public profile had receded — other than an odd appearance a few years back on the David Letterman show — before her diagnosis with cancer.
The actresss who built a career on her blonde good looks allowed a film crew to chronicle her struggle against the disease for a documentary. Some of this appeared on NBC in May. (This attracted what I thought was some quite ungracious and unwarranted criticism.)
I suspect that more people will be familiar with Jackson than will remember Fawcett 50 years from now. But both are true pop culture icons because of what they’ve had the power to do when you hear or see their work — bring back a time, or even a moment, that meant something to you.
May they both rest in peace.