I’ve watched over the past week with great interest as the media madness surrounding the unexpected death of Michael Jackson has spiraled from frenzied to crazed to completely over the top.
Like a true Royal, the pop star’s passing has been treated with unprecedented fanfare, complete with non-stop media insanity culminating in a televised “official state funeral.” Janet, Tito, LaToya, Jermaine and the rest of the Royal Jackson Family were to be seen simply everywhere. “He was the best father ever,” cried Paris.
Every cable channel, every magazine cover, every conversation touted the influence and importance of the “King of Pop.” But somehow the chorus rang false to me.
The more I watched, the more I realized that a cultural war is taking place. In the multi-culti PC world of President Obama’s America, Michael Jackson has become the new Elvis. The King is Dead, Long Live the King. Like Elvis, Michael represented the pinnacle of crass, ostentatious materialism; both poster boys for overindulgence, embodying a lifestyle of excessive, over-the-top consumption. MJ like Elvis sold his soul in a Faustian bargain with the demons of commercialism.
Once innocent, exuding a purity of raw talent, both men died too early, full of drugs and deeply depressed. Having achieved the American Dream of fame and fortune – sex and stardom – the Kings quickly found themselves grotesque caricatures – Elvis ridiculous in his outlandish capes and massive wrestler belts; Michael, suspect with his sequined gloves, scarves, masks and Mickey Mouse persona (Rolling Stone once aptly put him on its cover as an animated Mickey).
There is a certain poetic symmetry to the whole “Next King Thing. “ Let’s face it; Elvis, and the other products of Sam Phillips’ Sun Records – Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins – were created as a way for the label to translate and package the essence of black “Race Music” for white audiences. “Give me a white boy who can sing like a N__,“ the wily Phillips was reported to have said, “and I’ll sell a million records.” They did and he did. As Muddy Waters once sang, “The Blues had a baby, and they called the baby Rock and Roll.”
For years artists like Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Little Richard complained loudly about being ripped off by white artists and the white labels. Their sounds, their styles and many times their songs were “covered” and made popular by white artists, who made the big paychecks and enjoyed great fame. This became standard operating practice. In large part, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is the music industry’s attempt to redeem itself for its exploitative ways.
Now in the sixties, all this began to change. Barry Gordy’s Motown (the first black-owned label) was largely responsible for enabling black artists to ‘crossover’ into the mainstream pop market. From 1961 to 1971, Motown had 110 top 10 hits, and artists such as Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, The Four Tops, and The Jackson 5 dominated the airwaves and defined a new pop culture reality. Music, like the rest of society, was becoming integrated. Young Michael Jackson was the very representation of this bright new future. America, and indeed the world, watched the little star evolve from a bubble gum sensation (battling it out in the late sixties with the Donny Osmond, David Cassidy and Bobby Sherman for teenie bopper dominance), into a real pop superstar. Where Chuck Berry and Little Richard were frustrated, Michael Jackson broke through to major superstardom.
Michael went solo in 1971, and had a series of huge albums. 1982’s Thriller remains the best-selling album of all time. In addition to catchy, sappy pop songs, MJ became famous for his dancing. His moonwalk defined a generation. He was a pioneer in creating the music video genre, and became the first African-American star of MTV. He got so rich and famous he outbid Paul McCartney for ownership in the Beatles song catalog!
Elvis was — and still remains — an icon of the redneck, good ol’ boy America. Even today, some 30 years after his tragic passing, one need go no further than the nearest truck stop, gas station DVD stand, fair grounds, or Wal*Mart to see that Elvis is STILL the King for White Trash America. Velvet Elvis is alive and well, and for sale on a roadside near you.
But Elvis’ America is quickly passing. It has been a long time since Elvis left the building. We now live in a multicultural America. Rap Music is Pop Music – for white kids, black kids, Hispanic kids. Demographers tell us that whites will be the minority race in this country within 25 years, with Hispanics the fastest growing segment.
It seems to me that what we’ve witnessed with this past week’s non-stop media madness has less to do with celebrating this flawed pedophile (talented and famous as he may have been) and more to do with acknowledging a milestone: the cultural and generational passing of the torch. Like the election of Barack Obama as the country’s first Black President, the crowning of Michael Jackson in his death as the new Elvis is emblematic of the end of one chapter in American history, and the beginning of another.