It has been one day since the world learned that Michael Jackson is dead.
First there was a brief report on MSNBC that Jackson had been rushed to the hospital, then I glanced at Facebook and saw that Tim Cuprisin had posted the big TMZ.com scoop, and eventually the LATimes.com city desk was tweeting confirmation.
There have been many groans about the typical, full-saturation TV coverage of this celebrity death. I can understand how the gossip reporting has irritated Janet Dahl. Local reporter Paul Sloth wondered whether our collective appetite for it could actually be blamed for Jackson’s death.
At the same time, stars don’t come any bigger than Michael Jackson, and his sudden death at just 50 years old came completely out of the blue on a Thursday afternoon. It’s natural that people would need some repetition to help in absorbing the instant finality of someone familiar to so many.
(A man seen quite a bit on TV regarding all this has been Frank Dileo, who had to tell Jackson’s children that he was dead. Google Dileo’s name and you find his fascinating story encompassing everything from Michael Jackson to Goodfellas to Disco Demolition.)
One of the first hiccups death presents to our oblivious egos is that the deceased is gone from the earth — vanished, nowhere — which simply cannot be. To remedy this, we sometimes attempt to fix the departed person’s position with a marker at some specific place. But with someone like Michael Jackson, where should that place be? Fans stuck pink teddy bears on the storm door of his first home in Gary, Indiana. Others brought objects to his figure at various wax museums.
Bizarrely, one of the spots mourners were quickly drawn to was a star for “Michael Jackson” on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame — the wrong Michael Jackson — this one the less-famous talk show host. On top of that, the confusion was caused by the premiere of the forthcoming Brüno movie which, until Jackson’s death, contained a scene that involved Sacha Baron Cohen, as Brüno, tricking Michael’s sister LaToya Jackson.
As death’s irrevocability begins to sink in, there is next the problem of how to remember the person. Complexities and contradictions must be trimmed down into a small, neat picture — an icon — which captures that essence so we can store it in our memory and refer back to it from time to time in the future, or pass it to our posterity.
Writing for the Washington Post, Monica Hesse examined how people around the world were going through this process:
In the weeks before his death, we might have said we didn’t know how we felt about Michael Jackson. He’d become so bizarre, so pale, so foreign and different from the musical genius some of us once worshipped. We thought that we hardly thought about him, except perhaps as a punch line. We felt that we felt nothing. But when news of Jackson’s death broke yesterday, it turned out that we were wrong. Fans and unfans alike, all around the world, all felt something, and sometimes very deeply.
I was not, particularly, a fan. But I have to believe that artistic achievements are more enduring than personal faults. For me — and surely many others — the iconic Michael Jackson is his solo performance at the 1983 Motown 25 show.
He moonwalks for the first time. There are gasps, but it’s not as big of a reaction as you might expect — possibly because it’s just one of so many amazing moves. The guy has music going through him like an electric shock. He’s breathtaking.
And then there’s that song he wrote. “Billie Jean” is an astounding masterpiece of pop music craftsmanship. One testament to its tenacity is that to this day, I hear Paul Shaffer deadpanning the word “chair” where “kid” should be. The song has some incredibly sturdy hooks.
Hearing it over and over for the last day, I wanted to play it on guitar. I found one set of adapted chords, which led me to this solo acoustic recording by Chris Cornell — a slow and pensive rendition which brings out some of the the song’s darker tones by lifting Jackson’s songwriting away from the familiar arrangement.
This afternoon on his daily “In the Stream with Mischke” webcast from CityPages.com, Tommy Mischke zeroed in on “Billie Jean,” going over the history of its composition, recording, mixing, performance, and legacy.
(More about Michael Jackson the beer expert at Wikipedia. Okay, so he’s been dead since Thursday, August 30, 2007, according to his WashingtonPost.com obit. More about T.D. Mischke here. Scientists do not know why he sometimes takes great license with details.)
Finally, to set “Billie Jean” inside a wider context of Michael Jackson’s work, here’s a video clip I saw posted by Jason Kottke. It’s from the 1995 MTV Video Music Awards:
Kottke writes that it’s his favorite performance:
It’s not a groundbreaking performance or anything — it’s like a greatest hits package — but I had it taped on VHS and watched it many many times, wondering how a person could move like that.
Yeah. Works for me too.
(Michael Jackson’s music is available at Amazon.com.)