Dateline: Twilight Zone, 21st Century America, September 4, 2009 – If a 35+ year career in public relations/promotion and marketing has taught me anything, it’s that timing really is everything, with context quick on its heels. Long ago, a New School Instructor in magazine writing provided me with the guideline I’ve worked by forever: Why is this story important, and why is it important now? She told us this was the question we should ask ourselves about our clients and their activities, because this was the question editors would ask us about our stories. But that was before sensationalist, tabloid news became America’s journalism staple, especially on TV, and many editors no longer make decisions based on quality and pertinence.
As I write this at around 5:00 a.m. EDT, I can hear Anderson Cooper on CNN narrate coverage of Michael Jackson’s funeral recorded earlier this evening. From Jackson’s death on June 25th to his dramatic, stadium-sized, televised memorial service in LA’s Staples Center on July 7th, I felt a renewed fondness for him, a genuine sadness about his premature death, and a new appreciation and respect for his innovative talent, sincere musical entreaties for global love and peace, and substantial, low-key philanthropy. The extensive news and events, broadcast at Princess Diana lengths, surely gave this special artist his public due and showed respect for the passionate esteem in which he is held by millions.
But tonight, a ghoulish 70 days after his death, the elaborate semi-private funeral and the fawning, detailed media coverage of it make me wince. It’s as dull as a re-run, phony as an America’s Most Wanted crime recreation, and tasteless as a third-rate Elvis impersonator revue. More important, and unsettling: unlike the marathon coverage of the early days of Jackson’s death and the response to it, it’s not news. This story is as stale as 70-day-old bread, and it is reinvigorating the peculiar image of Wacko Jacko that had been considerably laid to waste and rest a couple of months ago.
And, needless to say, it’s happening in sharp contrast to the send-off for Ted Kennedy just last week, which was immediate, comparatively brief, simple, dignified, and filled with humor, wisdom and regard. Michael Jackson’s funeral now seems like a tribute to the banality of contemporary pop culture and the cheesiest kind of celebrity gore.
The King of Pop, whose funeral was only partly-legitimately delayed by an autopsy and assorted post-mortem testing, has spent quite a while literally chilling in Motown mogul Berry Gordy’s own crypt (since Berry doesn’t need it yet) in The Court of Remembrance at the famous Forest Lawn cemetery in Hollywood Hills, awaiting tonight’s interment just down the road apiece. But first the family had to have an assortment of hissy-fits about where to put him, and that took a while.
Michael Jackson will be ensconced in the Memorial Court of Honor in The Great Mausoleum, a multi-lower-level catacomb of secret celebrity tombs. Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Nat King Cole, Humphrey Bogart, Sammy Davis., Jr., Jimmy Stewart and W.C. Fields, among numerous other departed luminaries, are also in repose there. In this cavernous space there are life-size re-creations of Michelangelo’s David and the Pietà. A massive stained glass reproduction of da Vinci’s “Last Supper” (similar to the painting that hung over Jackson’s bed) will now tower over him in death.
And what the news is reporting about the funeral itself sounds like classic Hollywood camp. Elizabeth Taylor sat there in her wheelchair. Macaulay Culkin came. Gladys Knight sang a gospel hymn. Neither of Jackson’s former wives attended, although they were invited; Diana Ross still didn’t have the strength to show up. The ushers are dancers from the planned upcoming London shows, dressed like West Point cadets. And from media distance, Cooper and other CNN reporters have been talking to some of Jackson’s friends and colleagues about the nature of fame and addiction and loneliness and the possibility of medical homicide.
By contrast, Ted Kennedy’s body lay quietly in state at the Kennedy Library, where a memorial was later held, followed by a funeral at Kennedy’s Boston church (Yo Yo Ma played, Placido Domingo sang, the President of the United States gave the eulogy), and was buried next to his martyred brothers at Arlington. His grave is marked by a simple white cross and a marble plaque on the ground.
It’s not really fair to compare the King of Pop and the Lion of the Senate; they held forth in very different arenas. Michael Jackson’s death reminded us that even pop music is art and art has the power to open hearts and change the world. Kennedy’s death reminded us that wealth and rank have their responsibilities, as well as privileges and prestige, and that coping with vital issues and serving the nation is the duty of every citizen. Two good songs – but sung so close to one another: discordant, incongruous, very strange, and very poorly timed.