I felt compelled to write something about the passing of Michael Jackson – after all, the name of this blog is "Pop Culture Gangster" and Michael was the "King of Pop." However, since there has been about ten million articles and blogs already written on the topic, I knew I couldn't add much to the stories written about his accomplishments, his contributions to music and dance, and the tragic figure that he had become in what turned out to be the last years of his career and life.
What did intrigue me was the sheer volume of articles, stories, and overall outpouring of feelings about Michael Jackson as both an artist and a cultural icon. I don't personally remember the passing away of John Lennon or Elvis Presley, so I really don't have a reference point for something like this – an artist who has global appeal and influence being taken away from their fans earlier than anyone would have thought.
It made me wonder who else in the world of music might have such a big cultural impact with their passing – who else might get a slew of schedule-shifting television specials put together and broadcast within 48 hours of their death?
As I developed a list in my head, I realized that most of the artists who come to mind were… well, older. Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger and/or Keith Richards all immediately come to mind. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys may also make the cut (or at least he should).
What's interesting about that list is that none of them had a debut album that came out after the 1975. It is difficult to think of an artist whose initial recording was released in the last 30 years, endeared themselves to many millions of fans crossing over generations, and have maintained their cultural and artistic relevance. The only artists that come to mind are Madonna, Prince and U2.
One could argue that the lack of those major, global arena-packing stars is a sign that popular music's quality peaked sometime in the late 60's – early 70's and has declined since then. It would make sense that in our hyper-connected world it would be easier for pop stars to become global megastars. However, I don't think the quality of music has declined and believe that our connected age has ironically made it more difficult for a star to obtain that critical mass for "global domination."
These two issues are actually intrinsically linked. There is plenty of good music still being made out there – in fact, in the coming weeks, I hope to share my thoughts on a few artists that I"ve recently discovered which I think are making original, high quality music. They are also artists who can easily make a respectable living monetarily while staying true to their artistic goals thanks to the new global village. Big contracts with big record labels selling big numbers of albums isn't the only measure of success any more.
With all the options available to both artists and fans to distribute and obtain music, it is easier to follow more bands – especially more obscure bands in small genres – that there isn't a need for people to gravitate towards a single band. That diversity of music is good for music and art – but bad for mega-global superstars.
The music industry is well aware that every time they lose an artist like Michael Jackson, they not only lose a great musician but a rare breed in today's world: an artist that can move millions of units quickly and easily, and reach across generations and demographics. It is a great irony that as music has become more liberated, it also means that more people who are interested in the music have access to it, but it results in less people are interested in a singular sound or artist.
That brings us back to Michael Jackson - an example of pure showmanship and talent that can impress anyone with ears and eyes willing to listen and look. There is no doubt that he had both – in case you didn't know, he wrote some of his biggest hits himself, including "Bad," "Beat It," "Billie Jean," and "Smooth Criminal" all great pop classics. He had an ear for an infectious hook, but he also often wrote surprisingly personal lyrics, not just light fluff.
His influence is so far-reaching, it is difficult to gauge what would happen to him in today's age – would he reach the same levels of fame? Would he be able to break through the cacophony of artists and genres available in stores and on line?
The days of the global mega-star are probably numbered – as I said, most of the artists on that list are getting on in years. Perhaps they will live well into their old age and when they pass there will be much mourning but not shock. If they are taken away earlier than that, perhaps the world will stand in the solidarity that only comes from the horror of losing someone too soon.
Either way, the passing of Michael Jackson isn't just a loss of a great artist and performer, but is a step closer towards the end of an era in popular music that has existed since the first time Elvis Presley shook his hips on TV, one that could be replaced by a world where artists perform for smaller, more devout audiences. We may not see a day again anytime soon when we all gather around the TV for a performance like Michael's on the Motown's 25th Anniversary Special, but hopefully we'll be able to gather around the iPod and hear his influence among many artists for many years to come.