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MJ still dead: Celebrity, hype and the U.S. of A.


Wow, there sure were a lot of unhappy people last week, griping about the Michael Jackson memorial in L.A. It was "tacky," they said. "Tasteless," they wailed. "Grotesque," "weird as hell," "maudlin," "sappy," and one commentator even called the event "emotional debauchery." Whew, take a deep breath, people.

When I heard the complaints, my mind went back to the days after Elvis Presley died in August 1977. There wasn't a non-stop news cycle at the time, much less Twitter, so we weren't inundated by continuous coverage of Elvis' death, but reactions to his demise were similar: the weeping and wailing; the mobs of fans descending on Graceland; the declarations of the singer's greatness, talent, influence and awesome powers beyond those of mortal men; the rumors of heavy drug use; and the second-by-second details of the funeral procession and burial (there was no public memorial for Elvis). And, yes, the post-funeral griping was just as nasty as what we heard last week: People shouldn't mourn such a decadent rock star (a book detailing E's drug use had been published the previous month), he was too weird, he was sexually perverse (tales of Graceland orgies), he hadn't been a creative force in music for 20 years, and he was physically misshapen (in E's case, his recent weight gain).

I admit it -- I was taken aback a few times by the Jackson memorial, too, but more by some of the people involved rather than by doubts about Jackson's worthiness for acclaim. I found it frankly disgusting that people had to pay to go to a memorial (as one wag said, at that price they better have a casket cam), but knowing MJ's father's money-grubbing history, it's not too surprising, especially since he was left out of Michael's will. I also thought it was odd for Brooke Shields to carry on about her deep, deep friendship with Jackson when she hadn't seen him in 18 years. And Al Sharpton and Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee could have skipped their defensive reminders about MJ's past legal troubles. As Gail Collins of the New York Times pointed out, "nobody really wants their memorial service dotted with comments like 'People are innocent until proven otherwise!'"

Cornel West, the Princeton scholar, made me do a double-take and say "What?!" when, while on the Tavis Smiley show, he went off on an off-the-scale tangent. Comparing Jackson's life story to that of Jesus, West was talking about Jackson's constricted celeb lifestyle when he declared, "It's almost like a crucifixion, in terms of the cross you have to bear. We reap the fruits of the resurrection, in terms of the power that emanates from [Jackson's] sacrifice. He sacrificed his childhood because he loved us so. He didn't just entertain us, he sustained us."

When a friend first pointed out West's statement, I was stunned and then laughed about it. Later, though, I again thought of the post-Elvis days and how some of the fans' comments were at least as worshipful and Christ-referenced as anything West said. Don't forget, too, that more than 50,000 fans kept a vigil by Elvis' tomb -- like the women in the New Testament after Jesus' death. Elvis/Christ comparisons were so common in those days that a friend and I, both of us big Elvis fans, used to joke about them -- to the extent that when he and I, along with my wife and another friend, visited Graceland not long after E's death, the two of us went on an irony-laden lark and wrote "Elvis Is Lord" in magic marker on the wall in front of Graceland.

I thought, too, of my teenage years when I felt that the Beatles were the greatest thing since Jesus. Heck, when John Lennon said that "The Beatles are bigger than Jesus," I thought he was right; my point being that extreme fandom is, like it or not, as much a part of American culture as apple pie; you can't criticize the over-the-top worshipful attitudes of Michael Jackson's fans without also denying the very culture he, and we, come from. So I don't begrudge a younger generation the right to mourn the passing of a cultural hero, and to do it with off-the-deep-end levels of praise. Gen Xers needed a way to find some, to use an overused word, "closure," and they did it through the big L.A. memorial, a ready-made vehicle for their grief.

As for the media, Gail Collins pointed out in her NY Times piece that the "practice of churning out stories about a deceased celebrity for as long as possible is an old tradition." In fact, she related, "it used to be known as the 'John Garfield Still Dead' syndrome," referring to the glut of coverage given movie star Garfield's death in "another woman's" bed.

Jackson and Presley were uncannily similar in many ways: Both were enormously influential musicians, and both were lonely men who led hothouse-flower types of lives as a result of their mammoth level of celebrity. Oh, and one more thing: Don't forget that at one point, Michael Jackson was married to Elvis' only child, Lisa Marie Presley. Sometimes fate, and celebrity, work in mysterious ways.

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