Michael Jackson: Goodbye, or See You Soon?

5 minute read
James Poniewozik

The most striking statement at Michael Jackson’s memorial service was not his daughter Paris’ tremulous and wrenching goodbye. It was not Berry Gordy’s declaring Jackson “the greatest entertainer that ever lived,” nor was it the Rev. Al Sharpton’s assertion that Jackson’s fame made a generation of white kids comfortable with electing a black President. It came before the encomiums and music began, after Motown singer Smokey Robinson took the stage, read testimonials from Diana Ross and Nelson Mandela, walked off —

And there was silence.

There was a long gap between Robinson’s reading and the rest of the ceremony. The networks hesitated to step on the quiet with commentary. So for a minute or so, there was a TV rarity: an utter hush. Broadcast and cable news alike took a breath — for the first time, it seemed, in a week and a half — and let the darkened arena and the stilled crowd tell the story. It was an unintended tribute, and a blessed relief.

(See TIME’s full Michael Jackson coverage.)

It says something about our media culture that it took a mammoth event held in a sports arena to demonstrate the power of a moment of quiet. Jackson’s memorial was an outsize spectacle, befitting an entertainer who engaged the world through outsize spectacles. The performers and eulogizers were A-list, the music anthemic, the casket gold-plated. And yet the service was also cathartic and tasteful, especially compared with the media frenzy that preceded it.

Indeed, between the memories and goodbyes, much of the memorial was about the media. A clip reel displayed tabloid headlines, and several speakers portrayed the singer as the victim of sensationalism. “Maybe now, Michael, they will leave you alone,” his brother Marlon said. “Wasn’t nothing strange about your daddy,” Sharpton told Jackson’s children. “It was strange what your daddy had to deal with.”

(See the top 10 Michael Jackson moments.)

People can debate whether that’s true, whether Jackson was a victim, whether the media persecuted him during his child-molestation trials and other scandals or soft-pedaled his history after his death. But certainly in death, Jackson served the media the way he did in life: as a limitless draw for audiences. (And yes, I know I write this in a magazine that rushed out a special commemorative issue the weekend after Jackson died.)

Jackson was the most famous entertainer on earth; his sudden death was real news, huge news. His memorial 12 days later was a mammoth, global event. It was during the in-between, as it always is, that the coverage went into high-speed idling mode. For a good week, there was little news — about his estate, the toxicology tests, his final moments — so the talk became about how little news there was. There were the prime-time specials, the morning-show reports, the commentators and endless clichés. (He was a barrier breaker, a chameleon, a Peter Pan — I’ve used some of those myself.)

Given the big ratings, clearly not everyone thinks the coverage is too much. The traffic on Twitter showed that the public was generating its own Jackson media. That’s the easy media defense: People want it! To paraphrase Michael, we can’t stop ’til you get enough.

(See 5 media myths that Jackson’s death debunked.)

But that ignores the effect journalists’ choices have on what people want. The media don’t brainwash people into wanting MJ 24/7; millions deeply loved him. But once a news frenzy gets momentum, it becomes its own justification. The spectacle becomes the reason for the spectacle. It becomes The Thing That Everyone Is Talking About.

And the media are as susceptible to this as anyone. Journalism isn’t a single-minded monolith that decides what to foist on the public. It’s a collection of individuals, who are just as easily affected by the feedback loop, while feeding into it.

Jackson’s farewell service was, in a sense, a rerun. For days, TV had been cycling the same clips, remembering the same songs; some speakers had been on TV sharing the same thoughts. Yet hearing brother Jermaine deliver “Smile,” Michael’s favorite song, to a crowd whose hearts were breaking had an entirely different effect than Jermaine’s singing it to Matt Lauer. Hearing Gordy recall Michael’s childhood audition was more moving than the dozens of bio reels that had sought the same response.

The news is a poor vehicle for catharsis; it thrives on maintaining tension, not relieving it. And a memorial is a poor medium for objective assessment, which we needed after Jackson’s death, and will need if and when there is more news in its aftermath. But in a perfect world, it would provide the media with an end point, a reason to pause and move on.

At this time, though, it doesn’t look like that has happened. The showman is gone, but the show — as his life proved, for better and worse — goes on.

See pictures of the Jackson family reunion.

See pictures of the young Michael Jackson in his own backyard.

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