July 07, 2009

Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone...Unless It's At A Big Concert On TV

It seems to me that Michael Jackson ended up being more popular dead than alive. I guess that always happens, though, doesn't it? The public and the press always tend to speak better of people in death than they did when they were alive. After all, it's considered bad manners to speak ill of the dead (although that never stopped me before, as anyone who read my work, especially about Nixon, in college can attest). But I just want to educate the public and the media about two specific terms:

eulogize /"ju;l@dZVIz/ (also eulogise)
· v. praise highly.
– DERIVATIVES eulogist n. eulogistic adj. eulogistically adv.

deify /"deIIfVI, "di;I-/
· v. (deifies, deified) make into or worship as a god.
– DERIVATIVES deification n.
– ORIGIN ME: from OFr. deifier, from eccles. L. deificare, from deus ‘god’.
When it came to Michael Jackson's death, the first would have been entirely acceptable. The second is what we got. To be fair, I listened to Michael Jackson's music, but to see people call him "the greatest entertainer ever"? Really? I think that's a bit much. First of all, I thought his two greatest albums were "Off the Wall" and "Thriller," and I suspect that was due in some significant part to Quincy Jones. The rest of the music...eh. Good but not great. Frankly, I think that strictly in terms of musical ability--writing, singing, arranging, etc.---some of those attending the memorial service were better than Jackson. Stevie Wonder jumps to the top of the list. I don't think that Jackson was the first artist to unite black and white America, either, even though I've heard that over and over again, mostly as an excuse for the overwhelming media coverage of his death. What about Nat "King" Cole, or Sam Cooke, or Marvin Gaye, or any number of other Motown artists. (Again, I think Stevie Wonder might be included.) It's true, Jackson sold an incredible number of albums and tickets, but I'm not that sure that in and of itself makes him great, any more than the Big Mac is somehow "better" than a burger or steak from your local diner, or the film Titanic is somehow "better" than, say, The Wrestler, simply because the former sold more tickets, or that the Facebook user with 1,000 "friends" is somehow a better person than the user with 50.

We sometimes have an exaggerated sense of our own era. How many times have you seen a top 20 list of the greatest (insert topic here) of all time, and noticed that most of them are from the last couple of years. To put things in a little perspective, I could mention that Rudolph Valentino's funeral drew about 100,000 mourners, and a) his career was much shorter, b) it was in 1926, well before the modern technology available to disseminate an artist's work around the globe, and c) it was a funeral, not a glorified concert. And the anniversaries of the deaths of Elvis Presley (in 1977) and James Dean (in 1955) still draw tens of thousands to Graceland and Fairmount, Indiana, respectively. If, in fifty-five years, people are still flocking to Neverland Ranch (or wherever), I'll gladly admit I was wrong. Until then, Michael's got a long way to go.

Look, I have no problem with Jackson. He made good music. He was influential. He was acquitted of any criminal activity. But let's be realistic. He was just an entertainer. And I don't even think he was, as many people have said, "the greatest entertainer ever." For my money, that title belongs to the great Sammy Davis, Jr. No one else even comes close. (And he's another one that united black and white America before Jackson.) The really ugly thing about all this is that it made a spectacle of what was obviously a tragedy for Jackson's family. I hope they found some comfort in all of it.


  1. It's interesting...I was doubting myself, as I sometimes do. This time in regards to my evaluations of the other singers I mentioned. After looking into it, turns out I wasn't far off. Clearly, no one beats Jackson(13) and Presley(17) in terms of number one hits (except for the Beatles and Mariah Carey(?)), but if you look at top 40 hits, then Presley creams Jackson, 104-35. What's more surprising, though, is that Stevie Wonder(46) and Marvin Gaye(40) both beat Jackson. Sam Cooke, who I think has one of the most amazing voices I've ever heard (as does Rolling Stone Magazine, who placed him at #4 on their "100 Greatest Singers of all Time" list), comes in with a measly 29 top 40 hits. I'm being sarcastic there, because those 29 top 40 hits came in a span of seven years, which is nothing short of amazing. All the others have had solo careers that were much, much longer.

  2. I liked him, I was a fan. But I tried to avoid all the coverage. You're right, the family's grief has become a total spectacle, yet I feel like they played a part in helping it be made a spectacle.

  3. Hey, remember how awesome Nixon was. And how you cried when he died? Yeah. That was pretty special.

  4. Yep...I like Dick. Wait...no! That's not what I meant at all! Damn you, Wheaton! Foiled again!