Last Sunday morning on Meet the Press, host David Gregory asked Presidential advisor David Axelrod whether or not Obama planned to make any public statement about Michael Jackson's death. Axelrod explained that the President had reached out to the Jackson family privately. What current pop star's death will merit discussion about an Oval Office response? Probably not Lady Gaga's.
There is much that will be missed about Michael Jackson, but the Axelrod/Gregory exchange made me think about something specific underlying our collective grief: MJ was the last pop star we will all share. He was the last one to garner so much genre-, race, and class-transcending popularity that it feels appropriate for his death to register as a tragedy of Presidential importance. We have lost a common bond.
Changes in the music industry will ensure that bond stays broken. Due to increased genre fragmentation, the proliferation of illegal downloading, and the ongoing extinction of brick-and-mortar record stores, music simply doesn't sell like it did during Jackson's '80s heyday. For instance, last year's biggest selling album was Lil Wayne's Tha Carter III, which moved 2.88 million copies in the U.S. Josh Groban's Noel was 2007's top seller. It sold 3.7 million. By comparison, 1982's Thriller sold 28 million copies. Five years later Bad sold eight million. 1991's Dangerous, at seven million, was considered a mild sales disappointment.
But it wasn't business that made Jackson a cross-cultural icon--it was, of course, his music. At their best (think of "Billie Jean" or "Bad"), the songs were as catchy as the flu and funkier than a Bonnaroo port-a-potty. Their playful melodies made them approachable enough for the parents while their innovative production and stealthily paranoid sentiments made them radical enough for the kids. If you didn't like Michael Jackson, the problem wasn't with him.
Now though, with the music world splintered into different radio formats and blogs and websites making it easier for people to burrow into the hermetic hole of stuff they already enjoy, it's hard to imagine anyone again approaching Jacksonian levels of appeal. The conditions just aren't there.
I think that's unfortunate. Having a pop star we can all watch and talk about and listen to makes music feel more vital. Michael Jackson was living proof that music meant something--to me, to you, to everyone. That proof is gone now. And now we are all living a little further apart from one another.
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