Michael Jackson died on June 4, 2009 at the age of 50. Having started his career at a very young age, he sang as part of The Jackson 5 with four of his siblings. Michael seemed to never have grown up, as he was “a middle-aged man-child weirdly out of touch with grown-up life” (“Michael jackson’s life,” 2009). He was “known for his backward-gliding moonwalk, his feverish, crotch-grabbing dance moves and his high-pitched singing, punctuated with squeals and titters. His single sequined glove, tight, military-style jacket and aviator sunglasses were trademarks, as was his ever-changing, surgically altered appearance” (“Michael jackson’s life,” 2009). Some of his trademarks were ridiculed and taunting. To many, he was famous for less fortunate events like his changing appearance from black complexion to white and “in 2002 when he playfully dangled his infant son, Prince Michael II, over a hotel balcony in Berlin” (“Michael jackson’s life,” 2009). These trademarks and famous moments are what have ritualized Michael Jackson’s celebrity. In addition, “his 1982 album ‘Thriller’…is the best-selling album of all time, with an estimated 50 million copies sold worldwide” (“Michael jackson’s life,” 2009). His global fame is what dubbed him the title ‘King of Pop’. Even so, the tabloids dubbed him “Wacko Jacko” because of his desires to be surrounded by children, his whimsical lifestyle, his famous antics. (“Michael jackson’s life,” 2009).
Michael died from a toxic combination of propofol, a drug meant to induce sleep, and an anti-depressant (“Michael jackson’s death,” 2011). Unfortunately, the drug combination was lethal, but nonetheless his private physician, Dr. Conrad Murray administered the propofol to Jackson even though he knew of the dangers (“Michael jackson’s death,” 2011). As a result, Conrad Murray was convicted of involuntary manslaughter on November 8, 2011 and sentenced to four years in prison (Garner & Madison, 2011). The Jackson family was deeply distraught like any would be from the death of a family member, but the public felt similar feelings as well. Public statements like that of Jermaine Jackson claiming “‘all Michael wanted to do was sleep. He didn’t want to die’” reinforce sympathy in the public in favor of Michael Jackson in the lawsuit against his doctor (“Michael jackson’s death,” 2011).
Turner (2004) describes the public’s reaction to Princess Diana’s death as “genuine sadness expressed by those who were complete strangers…but who felt that they knew her as part of their lives” (p. 89). His description of the audience’s emotions in this particular case is also valid regarding reactions to the death of any well-known and “loved” celebrity, like Michael Jackson. The term Turner (2004) invented, “‘flashpoint’,… [is] where a particular event or person completely dominates media coverage” (p. 90). The coverage of Jackson was not just the news that he died, but it also came in the form of “obituary, as identity politics, as entertainment, as myth or narrative, or as gossip” (Turner, 2004, p. 90). Thus, the publicity surrounding Jackson’s death provides an example of Turner’s ‘flashpoint’ concept. With this in mind, when ‘flashpoints’ occur in the media after the death of a public figure or celebrity, in this case Michael Jackson, the public’s “emotions generated…forced the relationship to break free of its management: to become, as it were, an unequivocally ‘real’ event”, taking control of Jackson’s posthumous fame (Turner, 2004, p. 90).
Turner’s ‘flashpoint’ refers to a “real” event, which is not unlike Daniel Boorstin’s (1961) coined term, the ‘pseudo-event’, where events are strategically fabricated by the media to be broadcast to the public (Quail, 2011). The construction of ordinary things is not unlike the management and construction of a ‘pseudo-event’ because it is a planned and fabricated thing which is unquestioned and perceived as normal to the public. This is not to say, though, that Michael Jackson’s death was a fabricated event, but that because of publicity the public’s emotional reaction to his death, even where they have no form of relationship with Jackson, was sadness and grief. Therefore, Michael Jackson’s death was a ‘flashpoint’ whilst the publicity generated by the incident was a ‘pseudo-event’.
Similar to Turner’s (2004) notion of ‘flashpoint’, Katrina Jaworski (2008) discusses the dissemination of a fabricated relationship between Michael Jackson and his fans through spectacle (p. 1). Using the idea of ‘spectacle’, coined by Guy Debord (1967), Jaworski argues that “instead of thinking about spectacle as a compilation of images through which something spectacular emerges, one should think of it as ‘ … a social relationship between people that is mediated by images’” (2008, p. 2). Turner (2004) discusses a similar phenomenon which he calls a ‘para-social relationship’ whereby celebrity relationships provided by the media differ from those which are face-to-face. (p. 94) The media provide an artificial relationship with which the fan or consumer relates. In the case of Michael Jackson’s death, the public reacted as though they were a part of his family. The social relationship between people that is mediated by images is like a ‘para-social relationship’ between an audience and celebrity. CNN’s coverage of Michael Jackson’s funeral service on July 7, 2009 reinforced the ‘para-social relationship’ between audience and celebrity because fans could “attend” the service as if they would for a family member (“Michael jackson memorial,” 2009). The media are saturated with the images and headlines about Jackson’s death and are spread through Turner’s (2004) ‘flashpoint’ concept. Along with the idea of ‘flashpoint’ in the media, Michael Jackson’s “values, norms and assumptions simultaneously embody what is displayed, providing the basis for cultural identification and consumption” (Jaworski, 2008, p. 2). Identification and consumption of celebrity are the underlying reasons why celebrities like Michael Jackson have a fanbase.
Regarding the display of a celebrity, including press stories about Michael Jackson’s death, Jaworski (2008) suggests “spectacle is conveyed as something good or ‘positive’, urging its consumers to accept passively what is on display” (p. 2). Therefore, since consumers passively accept media displays, their ‘para-social relationships’ are based on the information portrayed through such discourses. Moreover, Jaworski says that “spectacle also materializes through repetition by which authority and truth are established” (Jaworski, 2008, p. 2). When the same story of Jackson’s death was repeated across media, as Turner’s (2004) concept of ‘flashpoint’ describes, the death directly affected Jackson’s relationship with both his fans and the public at large (p. 90). This is because media displays are seen by both fans and the public, since they are shown in public spaces, thus creating a larger demographic to be affected by Jackson’s death.
Turner discusses ‘the demotic turn’ which he claims is “the proliferation of media content in general and in particular, the proliferation of the construction of ‘the ordinary’ in contemporary media” (Turner, 2004, p. 91). According to Dr. Christine Quail, ‘the demotic turn’ gives power to the consumer because “discourses are open to popular control” (Quail, 2012). The ending result is that the public have taken control of the management of Michael Jackson’s fame after they he passed away through their loyalty and fandom. In the future, loyal fans will continue to purchase memorabilia and music. Some will view or attend memorial events commemorating his death to maintain their ‘para-social relationship’ with Jackson and his family. Such memorial events include commemorations dedicated to Michael Jackson through the media including a memorial article like the one featured in CNN’s online entertainment section (“Michael jackson remembered,” 2010). The most recent memorial event was when “Michael Jackson’s children…helped memorialize him in a hand and footprint ceremony in Los Angeles on Thursday January 26, 2012” (Olya, 2012).
Although the King of Pop may be gone, his legacy lives on through his history, his children and family, and memorabilia such as events commemorating his life or merchandise celebrating his success. If it weren’t for the devotion of his fans and public understanding of his legacy, Michael Jackson’s celebrity would fade away.
Garner, D., & Madison, J. (2011, November 8). Conrad miller. The Daily Mail. Retrieved from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2058699/Michael-Jackson-verdict-Conrad-Murray-guilty-suicide-watch.html
Jaworski, K. (2008). “Elegantly wasted: The celebrity deaths of Michael Hutchence and Paula Yates,” Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies. 22 (6): 777-791. [Library]
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Michael jackson remembered. (2010). CNN. Turner Broadcasting System Inc. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/2009/michael.jackson.remembered/
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Michael jackson’s life cut shockingly short. (2009, June 26). MSNBC. Associated Press. Retrieved from http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/31552029/ns/today-entertainment/t/michael-jacksons-life-cut-shockingly-short/
Olya, G. (2012, January 26). Michael jackson’s children memorialize him in handprint ceremony. People Magazine. Time Inc. Retrieved from http://www.people.com/people/article/0„20565013,00.html
Quail, C. (2011, November 25). Communication theory i: Fundamental perspectives. [PowerPoint slides].
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Turner, G. (2004). Understanding Celebrity. London, UK: Sage Publications, 89-107.