Archive for June 25th, 2009

Although he has always appeared frail, the hospitalization and subsequent death of Michael Jackson surprised me.  Farrah Fawcett and Ed McMahon had their biggest impacts on older generations, but I was becoming aware of music videos at the peak of Jackson’s fame and have been aware of the trials and tribulations that followed, from declining sales and criminal allegations to baby dangling and financial difficulties.  While the reports of his death that I have seen mention these things, they typically emphasize the tremendous cultural influence that Jackson had from his childhood until the early ’90s.

Jackson’s death made me think of the sociological work on collective memory, such as Fine’s “Resurrecting the Red: Pete Seeger and the Purification of Difficult Reputations,” which appeared in the June 2002 issue of Social Forces.  As noted in the abstract, this work examines “The purification of Pete Seeger’s image, from vilified Communist to national hero,” and:

lets us study both reputational change and the relationship between art and politics. An objectivist model suggests that reputations simply reflect truth. An ideological model claims that Seeger’s redemption is shaped by a biased media. Neither sufficiently explains the competitive nature of reputational politics. Our constructionist model takes into account both the role of reputational entrepreneurs and the structural constraints they face. We chart Seeger’s reputation through four historical periods: recognition among his peers on the Left (1940s), ruin in the McCarthy period (1950-62), renown among sympathetic subcultures (1960s), and institutionalization as a cultural icon.

While Jackson will no doubt continue to be highly regarded for his music, I wonder if the less-desirable aspects of his life will fall away over time.  For Jackson, the historical periods are less easily defined.  Sure, there is the talented but potentially unhappy childhood that appears to have influenced much of the rest of his life, but beyond that there is a confluence of entertainer, perfectionist, chimpanzee owner, elephant man bone buyer, appearance changer, Presley marryer, child bearer, and self defender.  Michael Jackson was extremely talented but also extremely bizarre.  It will be interesting to see how history (not HIStory this time) remembers him.

Update: There is an interesting post at the Double X blog discussing the way that Jackson’s death allows us to shed the baggage of his bizarre life and focus on his music.  It concludes:

Now the bad years, tragic as they were, right up to the end, are over, and we can start to appreciate the good ones, the ones when Jackson created more stupendous hit songs than most musicians could in many, many lifetimes. The weirdness still lingers, but it won’t have pride of place for long. Watch, in a few decades, all the freakishness will be a footnote, and the kids will still be dancing to “Billie Jean” and trying to figure out how to moonwalk.

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