Let's get it over with: Michael Jackson was a magical entertainer. Okay? You only had to see him to know it was true. Now that I've established my pop culture bona fides, let me also say he was a creep, a likely pedophile, a drug addict, a plastic surgery junkie, a man who bleached out his blackness and, at the time of his death, wound up looking like an anorexic Bat Mitzvah girl with a lousy nose job. His early life was hellish: he was a victim of horrific cruelty by his father. And not only was he exploited by his family, but by Motown and the other media companies that appeared to act on the belief that the antidote to child abuse was a big, fat royalty check.
But it's not Michael Jackson and his brilliant, pathetic, loathsome life that's the issue for me. It's the tributes. The candles, flowers, teddy bears, signs, white glove, hats, and of course, the mourners. They wept and watched the giant screens in cities across the world. They flew to LA from every continent except Antarctica to stand in a crowd a thousand feet from the Staples Center. There was amazing unanimity in their expressions of grief: "I loved Michael!" and "I just had to be here."
Take away the gloves and hats, toss in a hundred thousand hearts, cut to London from LA, and it's Princess Di all over again: weepers, wailers, scribblers, T-shirt buyers. A crowd draws together to celebrate a celebrity who died, if not young, then not old. (And the tears flow more copiously when it's a VIP who spent a good deal of time and energy publicizing his/her own victimhood.) Unlike the dignity and sincere grief people around the globe displayed by offering simultaneous prayers in memory of John Lennon, these Hey, did you catch my blubbering on YouTube? people mainly want to be at the party. And if they're not invited, they simply go.
"I just had to be here." That's the key phrase. An exploited life ends with an exploited death. People rush forth so they can align themselves with celebrity. They want to be able to start a sentence with "When I was at Princess Di's funeral..." and thereby achieve mini-stardom for themselves. To be a mourner along with Elton John, Hillary Clinton, Sting and Donatella Versace is to be kind-of, sort-of famous.
There's nothing new in public displays of grief. It's part of some religious practices and cultural traditions, from Muslims mourning a victim of violence to jazz funerals in New Orleans. And people sincerely want to pay their respects for notables whose lives have meant something: They came out to watch FDR's funeral train pass by, to file in to see Rosa Parks lying in state in the U.S. Capitol. They came, too, to grieve over the violation of the soul of a city or nation: to lay bouquets near the debris of what, days before, had been the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, or the World Trade Center in New York. That's not just appropriate behavior; it's a form of loving citizenship.
But to get all weepy over poor Farrah one week, then, seven days later, snicker about how she picked the wrong day to die shows how deep these public displays of anguish go. To shove aside a stranger so you're close enough to kiss the CNN mic and thus get the chance to snivel "I just loved Michael sooo much I can't begin to tell you!" is not just crass, it's the height of self-centeredness.
That's what modern celebrity is all about: Me. My moment. My fame. My sign saying MJ We Luv U 4Ever!
They just won't get the People cover.