Blogging from Milwaukee, at the end of a client business trip, I can’t help but think about the last time I visited this city. It was 15 years ago this month on the day that the modern era of celebrity-driven mainstream news began. O.J. Simpson was named a murder suspect and the rest is history.
I remembered that moment when I turned on the radio the rental car yesterday afternoon, trying to get a local weather and traffic update, and heard the just-breaking news of Michael Jackson’s death. My next thought, “What will The Media do without Michael Jackson?”
In a celebrity obsessed culture, Michael Jackson was an instant audience magnet for all forms of media, virtually across the globe. Even for American LOCAL TV news, it was tough to beat a promo featuring a Jackson story if you wanted to assure an audience for your newscast. Trust me, I wrote a bunch of those “teases” in the mid-90s, a decade after his peak of musical popularity, but smack in the middle of his tabloid heyday.
Michael Jackson may have been the biggest individual media spectacle of all time. Here are a few factors:
-Unparalleled fame: He was famous on the highest possible level. Around the world, he had amazing recognition, if not popularity. I remember, in the “Thriller” days, he was the one current star who “the kids” liked that even my grandparents could identify. Today, there are bona fide celebrities that I, as someone who studies media, couldn’t pick out of a lineup.
-Timing: He hit just as electronic media was exploding, particularly music videos.
-Bizarre and compelling events: His public life was a series of weird (at least) events, visual and memorable moments, starting with his hair catching on fire (in New York City to boot) in early 1984. That was followed by, to name a few, post-surgical public appearances, the molestation trial, the marriage to Lisa Marie Presley (he was basically Elvis’ son-in-law!), births of children, dangling of a child, etc. etc.)
-“The anti-every man”: His life couldn’t have more different from the average America’s. It was like “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” on steroids. The public couldn’t learn enough about how he spent his days.
As we’ve long established on this blog, media loves to cover celebrities – it’s relatively cheap, easy and draws an audience. But what celebrity will ever create stories like Michael Jackson? Leaving Milwaukee this time, it’s the end of an era.