The surrealism of celebrity pop culture erupts when a major celebrity dies. The sudden, mysterious death of Michael Jackson caused a near-total eclipse of the real news. The cable-news channels blurred into 24-7 wailing walls for the so-called "King of Pop." Television ratings surged with a big ka-ching.
So much for the "news" business. On Friday, for example, just 24 hours after the death news broke, anchors like NBC's Brian Williams fit the "news" of Congress, the recession and Iran into a neat thimble of snippets so they could devote most of the newscast to continued mourning of the man with the glittery glove.
But what, exactly, is it that Michael Jackson brought to America that was so essential? An alien arriving from space would find him celebrated for dressing in shiny socks and dancing the "moonwalk." His music broke sales records and sets dance floors hopping, and his videos made people say, "I want my MTV." But all this happened a long time ago, when MTV was a music channel.
That is not how Michael Jackson dominated the pop-culture news scene for the past 15 years or so. What about Michael Jackson, the man? Was he, in the end, a good man? It seemed no one asked. Everyone wanted to celebrate the mystique of Jackson, but no one was comfortable focusing on the real Michael Jackson -- a wretched degenerate if ever there was one.
On NBC, reporter Janet Shamlian stayed vague about the "eccentricities" of Jackson: "In 1993, facing allegations of sexual abuse from a 13-year-old boy, he settled out of court. Soon after, he married Elvis's daughter Lisa Marie Presley in a union that would last less than two years. In 2005, criminal charges of sexually abusing a teenage boy, and more bizarre behavior. He would show up in court in pajama bottoms. In the end, the jury said he was innocent."
The coverage was an ocean wide -- and an inch deep.
Some hinted at a much darker celebrity inside the bubble. They reported Lisa Marie Presley wrote a letter. "I wanted to save him from the inevitable, which is what has just happened," Presley wrote. "I became very ill and emotionally / spiritually exhausted in my quest to save him from certain self-destructive behavior and from the awful vampires and leeches he would always manage to magnetize around him." This man was disturbed, addicted -- and perhaps to some, he was evil, not just eccentric. Whatever he was, he never seemed to grow up completely. Presley said Jackson feared he would die of an overdose, but he never seemed to take full responsibility for himself.