For those of us who care about pop culture, this past week has raised the question: When Michael Jackson died, did the age of the superstar die with him?
As Kyle Ryan of The A.V. Club points out, Michael Jackson would not be the first last superstar. Ryan quotes Lester Bangs, who had this to say when Elvis Presley died: “But I can guarantee you one thing; we will never agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis. So I won’t bother saying goodbye to his corpse. I will say goodbye to you.”
The comparison is worth making–on an emotional level, at the very least. The way that I feel about Michael Jackson dying must be something like what Elvis fans felt in 1977, when their King died: Is this really how it ends? There was no comeback, and now there never will be. More than anything, what’s so strange is the knowledge that one of the greatest entertainers of all time will now be remembered more for his personal bizarreness than for his professional accomplishments.
But here’s the rub: Although I feel that way about Michael Jackson, I can’t even imagine feeling that way about Elvis Presley. Elvis, to me, is defined by his sad decline first and foremost. His music is catchy, and it’s creolized–and it was wildly popular in its day, so it’s an important cultural artifact–but otherwise, who cares? His rise seems significant primarily because it facilitated his fall.
And of course, there are plenty of people to whom Michael Jackson is defined primarily by his sad decline. Trying to explain to anyone born after 1990 that Michael Jackson was once a universally beloved pop star is like trying to explain to anyone born after 1985 that O.J. Simpson was once a prominent football player.
That I personally like Michael Jackson’s music much more than I like Elvis Presley’s music is, for the moment, beside the point. The important thing is that neither of these supposed flash points of cultural consensus is as universal as we’d like to think. The consensus existed way back when, but it doesn’t exist now.
So the fact that everyone more or less agreed on Michael Jackson in the 1980s, and on Elvis Presley in the 1960s, has at least as much to do with the times as with the artists. That there hasn’t been another Thriller–another album that everybody bought–does not mean that every album recorded since 1982 has been inferior to Thriller. The splintering of pop culture has just as much to do with the Internet, and the recording industry’s collective suicide pact (beginning with the scam that was the CD–buy your whole music collection again!–and continuing on through the RIAA’s latest misadventures).
All of which means, essentially, that the superstar didn’t die this week. Superstardom, as a job description, was downsized years ago. No one is currently employed in that position, nor has anyone been for quite some time.
And it’s high time we realized that, and let the concept of the superstar go the way of the wax cylinder. It would be hard to argue that our antiquated conception of what fame should be (conspicuous consumption, quickie marriages, and so on) has done any favors for, say, Britney Spears. Hell, it would be equally hard to argue that the superstar ethos was ultimately a good thing for the King of Pop, or for The King before him. Things didn’t end well for either of those celebrated pop monarchs.
So go ahead and mourn Michael Jackson, but don’t mourn superstardom. I mean, for God’s sake, look what superstardom did to Michael Jackson.