Thursday, July 2, 2009

King of Pop

Little more than a week ago the Americans watched in amazement as a nascent democratic movement surged through the streets of Tehran protesting the government’s rigged presidential election. The protests were followed by a brutal government crackdown that resulted in many deaths and thousands of arrests. Social networking sights became the frontlines in a propaganda battle that had moved beyond television and radio.

But when the man known as the “King of Pop” died last Thursday the world’s attention immediately shifted to Michael Jackson. He was the first global “crossover” super star because his music transcended all borders. His musical influence and tragic personal story extended from his hometown of Gary, Indiana, to Gabon and Egypt. Little Richard and James Brown inspired Jackson when he was a young boy. He was already a budding child prodigy who in his lifetime would become a prolific singer-songwriter, record producer, musical arranger, dancer, choreographer, actor, author, businessman, financier, philanthropist and inventor.

Media coverage of Jackson’s death has been non-stop. Cable news outlets are filled with coverage, network specials are drawing millions of viewers and websites have enormous traffic. Meanwhile album sales of his great hits are booming. While interest in Jackson’s death in the rest of the world has eased, many Americans can’t get enough coverage.

There has not been such a media-frenzy since the tragic death of Princess Diana in August 1997. Americans consumed hours of wall-to-wall coverage detailing the highlights and scandals surrounding her life. She was so beautiful and innocent, yet her life story was complicated. British pop star Elton John sang “Candle in the Wind” at her funeral in Westminster Abbey. It was an English tragedy playing out on a global media stage.

The first “King of Rock and Roll” died tragically in 1977. Elvis Aaron Presley was born of humble origins in Tupelo, Mississippi, but would go on to be the world’s first rock-and-roll super star and an American cultural icon. His music, a blend of rock, country, blues and gospel, was loud and passionate. He swiveled his hips (“Elvis the Pelvis”) in his patented dance move that drew screams and swoons from his fans and disdain from many parents during the Fifties. Presley is the only performer to have been inducted into four music halls of fame.

Word of Presley’s death reached the CBS Newsroom in New York about 5:30pm, August 16, 1977. The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite was number one in the ratings at a time when there were no cable outlets. Cronkite was on vacation when the executive producer decided not to lead the broadcast with Presley’s death. However, ABC News and NBC News did make the story their lead. It would be the lowest rated CBS Evening News in years as viewers immediately switched to the other two networks for Presley coverage. Remarkably, the CBS News producer who made that call later said, ‘If on my epitaph it reads, “The man who did not lead with Presley’s death,” I can live with that.’

Americans love their shooting stars. Stars who demand attention, win affection and adulation, and then prematurely burn out. They are often extremely talented and, at the same time, extremely flawed. They fill tabloid magazines, websites and conversations in Laundromats. Presley, Princess Diana and Jackson all died suddenly at a relatively young age. Yet they had become part of our lives; we grew older with them.

Because Jackson achieved so much and his music had such a phenomenal impact, today our collective bandwidth is bursting. And this coming Tuesday America’s attention will be focused on Michael Jackson’s funeral in Los Angeles. Untold thousands of adoring fans will be at the Staple Center in an event worthy of the King of Pop.

Meanwhile, many Iranians will continue their campaign for a fair election, U.S. troops will continue their attacks on Taliban terrorists in Afghanistan, North Korea will remain unstable, U.S. unemployment will remain at about 10%, more homes will be foreclosed and more children will die of disease, war or abuse.

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