The death and memorial service for Michael Jackson brings to an end something besides the life of a man. I drafted a post on this last week, put it to one side while I was writing a paper for a conference I'm going to this Friday (on Literary London, if you must know), then found that Momus had said pretty much exactly what I wanted to say in the mean time: that Jackson was the last of his type, a relic from another age... and Momus had been quoted around the world for it:
In particular he notes:
Michael Jackson is not just the King of Pop, but the Last King of Pop. Three major factors will prevent there ever being another one: digital culture and its fragmentation of the big "we are the world"-type audience into a million tiny, targeted audiences; the demographic decline of the "pigs in the pipe" (the Baby Boomers, Gen X and Gen Y, who made pop music's four-decade-long pre-eminence possible); and the decline of the influence of the United States....
Jerry Del Colliano, a professor of the music industry at the University of Southern California... thinks that stars will emerge from social networking software.
[I], however, believe that social networking may have the opposite effect... the world may be headed back to what celebrated sociologist Pierre Bourdieu found in 1960s France -- white-collar workers preferred high-brow classical music, while manual laborers listened to cheap pop. A few decades later, postmodern consumer culture had leveled that, at least superficially: now, people with college degrees spoke about Michael Jackson 'intelligently,' people from lower class backgrounds spoke about him 'passionately.' But everybody spoke about him... But social networking is now limiting interaction among groups with different tastes... I think we'll see different classes embracing different cultures again. Things will settle back into the kind of cultural landscape Bourdieu described.
Socio-cultural prediction is a mug's game, and my instincts tell me that wherever we are going it is not forward into the past. Indeed, the clinging to Bourdieu may itself by a consoling retreat to the familiar even as the end of an era is announced. But the incommensurability of digital forums such as social networking with the old postmodern landscape is accurately perceived, I feel.
In truth, as an entertainer Jackson was already a ghost from a vanished world when he died. He left us the same day as Farrah Fawcett, another pop culture superstar from the late 1970s/early 1980s. After the end of the 80s Jackson remained in the public eye through ever-more grotesque and sordid personal behaviour, not through his work; his songs and videos - which once defined MTV and the whole early 80s Fredric Jameson aesthetic of pastiche, the waning of affect et al - became void of style or content outside of their deluded messianism (clips of him bestowing hope on thousands of the downtrodden, etc.) The website set up for Jackson's funeral invites us to choose Jackson's best song - "Thriller", "Billie Jean" or "Bad" - and doesn't notice that the most recent of these is considerably older than the average pop music fan.
So, Jackson's passing encompasses four kinds of death, beginning with the immediately physical. Textually this was yesterday's superstar too, like Fawcett; creatively he was already a burned out force. The nature and scale of his superstardom is doubtless a thing of the past too, as Momus notes. Finally, in the wake of a Glastonbury dominated by Blur, a band who peaked commercially 15 years ago and split up 6 years ago, Jackson's death highlights the contemporary status of pop and rock as something superannuated, living on its memories, fading slowly into the cultural night.