Michael Jackson’s death is the most globally devastating and consequential celebrity passing since that of Princess Diana nearly a dozen years ago and surely the most axis-altering entertainment story since at least the dawn of the Blog Age. Possibly even the Internet Age altogether.
Here, after all, is a chronicle that embodies pretty much every aspect of tabloid culture in a single cataclysmic spasm: rags-to-riches, tragedy, early death, drugs, race, crime and celebrity justice, worldwide fame, financial calamity, sexual ambiguity, abuse (of self and allegedly others), kids, animals, dysfunction on the grandest imaginable scale, and warped familial dynamics.
It also carries with it an agonizing arc of heartbreak that ultimately proves downright Shakespearean in its scope. Harvey Levin himself couldn’t have plotted it any better.
In the media’s unforgiving and unblinking eye, we saw little Michael grow up, and we saw gravely wounded Michael fall down. All the King of Pop’s horses and all the King of Pop’s men couldn’t put him back together again. Not even for a final duet with the spotlight. Or a last waltz with a "which" doctor (as in, "Which painkiller would you like to bond with today?").
In measuring the monumental impact of Jackson’s death on a celebrity media culture consumed with trumped-up garbage like how mass hatred will wind up impacting "Jon & Kate Plus 8," we need look no further than the fact that from the get-go, the press mainstream (whatever we now perceive that to be) was placed in the uncomfortable position of chasing the tail of one TMZ.com, whose journalistic credibility ranges somewhere between that of Perez Hilton and a stag beetle.
The clear consensus is that TMZ largely lucked out in its early declaration of Jackson’s death late Thursday afternoon and could just as easily have come out smelling more like unctuous vultures than story trailblazers.
Be that as it may, it became the Hollywood blogger’s defining moment, with no less than the New York Times and L.A. Times following its Jackson lead in a frightfully ironic element of blind-leading-the-mind subtext.
Once Jackson’s death was conclusively confirmed, all hell naturally broke loose. The feeding frenzy was instantaneous and massive, akin to the proverbial lion being supplied a fresh plate of steak tartare.
From the blogosphere to cable television to the networks to even the antiquated print-gone-online universe, the collective newsgathering world would scarcely mask its unbridled gratitude in having been handed the Hollywood story of the young century — and in the middle of a weekday afternoon news cycle, no less.
Just when they thought this was destined to be a day reserved for Farrah Fawcett, who had succumbed earlier that day to the cancer that had grown to become a tabloid sensation in its own right, up popped a once-every-generation cultural touchstone our of literally nowhere.
Just like in the days of yore, the broadcast networks blew out parts of their primetime Thursday night schedules to cover…well…the fact that Michael Jackson had died.
If it required an hour to assure viewers it was indeed true, well, that’s just the way the ball continues to bounce in the Let’s-Still-Pretend-DVR-and-the-Internet-Don’t-Exist no man’s land in which the broadcast network news divisions find themselves.
The MSNBCs and CNN’s and Fox News Channels contented themselves that first night with interviews from old standbys like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson and the seeming score of lawyers who have at one time worked for Jackson (it’s evidently now a prerequisite after passing the California bar).
We saw every permutation of Jackson’s performing life, from every angle and every era, from rubbing elbows with Ed Sullivan and Dick Clark to showcasing the evolution of his skin pigment and facial anatomy.
By Friday, the knee-jerk bluster and ear-piercing adoration of a nation — and indeed, a world — in shock morphed into something more approximating the present media comfort zone: fingering scapegoats and fixing blame. Legends like Michael Jackson don’t just die. There must be a culprit, or (preferably) culprits.
So began the second-day quarterbacking in earnest. Yes, the man was a loon, but someone had to make him that way (Exhibit A: his father Joe Jackson). The personal physician Dr. Conrad Murray suddenly appeared on the chopping block, with the Jackson family dutifully questioning it all.
Anyone who had ever spoken to anyone who had ever spoken to someone who knew Jackson suddenly materialized as an instant expert. And that fishing expedition for answers continued into Saturday and Sunday to the backdrop of lofty TV ratings and spiking Web traffic.
The print media and e-zines, meanwhile, contented themselves with poetic diatribes about how the tragedy of one so talented could be squandered on someone so fragile, vulnerable and dysfunctional. The fact Jackson was a mere 50, and not 60, allowed the wrenching pity of it all to take full flower.
Yet permeating this whole sad episode has been a certain sense of inevitability. Even with the big series of concerts in London looking, there exists an unstated impression that this endgame isn’t so much alarming as it is heartbreaking and painful.
The undercurrent in the blinding reportorial glare of the past three days isn’t that this all came out of nowhere but that it happened in broad daylight, right under everyone’s gaze, and yet we all were powerless to stop it.
Surely in that way, there is a similarity to the circumstances surrounding the death of Princess Di. Jackson’s downfall, like that of Diana, was a slow-mo train wreck for which we all bore rubberneck witness — and from which the media extracted its pound of flesh.
The primary difference with Jackson is that with cyberspace now playing a leading role in how Hollywood gets played, the coverage no longer is siphoned through a finite filter — and speculation is thus likely to continue forth forevermore.
In other words, even in death, it’s clear that the man-child in the mirror won’t be leaving us with any simple answers. Consider it his enduring legacy.
Ray Richmond regularly blogs at www.manbitestinseltown.com.