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MJ -My Generation’s First American Idol

People die every minute of every day. It’s a sad, yet unavoidable fact of life. As a species we have developed coping mechanisms to honor and remember those in our lives who have touched us – emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, etc. And when someone famous dies, these coping mechanisms turn from private to public support.

When someone close to us dies we focus on the good, and not the negative that may have surrounded the deceased or the relationship they had with us. With people who choose to spend their life under the public microscope, there will always be detractors. But in death, the public tends to join one another in positive support and remembering the good of the persona. MJ is no different, although he had his own demons that were manifested throughout the course of his life. But the amount of love that has poured in is astonishing. Throughout my life, there have been many influential people who have died, but with the passing of Michael Jackson, there’s a different feeling to this.

I don’t know anyone that doesn’t like MJ’s music (except for Chief Justice Roberts) and, as expected, pretty much every radio station and music TV network (yes, even that one that used to play videos, then stopped) have been playing MJ all day. There seems to be a large nostalgic aspect sweeping the U.S and other parts of the world, and this is different from when a “normal” celebrity dies.

While the deaths of Farrah Fawcet and Ed McMahon are saddening, the impact they had on the world was miniscule to MJ. And though they did get their fare share of media empathy, they did not break the Internet or bring the highest amount of users ever to Wikipedia.

I guess this is the difference between a celebrity and an icon.

When I was younger, I had 2 posters hanging in my room: Donnie Baseball and MJ.

Last night, talking to friends about MJ’s impact on us, I started thinking about the death (and consequent reaction) of other famous people and we came to the conclusion that MJ’s death is the first one where a childhood idol died. While my generation watched the masses pay tribute to famous people such as Kurt Cobain, Jerry Garcia, Mickey Mantle, Johnny Carson, Nixon, Reagan, Ford, none of them (with the exception of Princess Diana) held the world in its grip as the passing of MJ has. But none of these people were of my generation. MJ was the voice of a new generation, as proclaimed by Pepsi in the early 80s. My generation. There are so few voices that can dominate our collective psyche and when one of them dies, the world does, in fact, mourn.

Unfortunately, MJ became a caricature, embodied most famously in his Never Ranch/Peter Pan delusion. He became a punch line – from Leno to Letterman to South Park. As a society, we very rarely have the ability to hold up a mirror to ourselves and when a major (sometimes controversial) figure dies, that mirror manifests in opaqueness. In this case, it won’t take long for media to talk about his troubles, both legal and financial. But for now, we remember the time when we fell in love with MJ.

I want to remember MJ from the early 80s, before his descent into eccentricities we’ll never be able to fathom. Yet, I know that whenever we read about him in the future, it will be a mixed bag of both good and bad. We can remember his influence in whatever ways we feel comfortable with. Me? I will, to the day I can no longer walk, attempt to Moonwalk at weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. I will always listen in sheer amazement and delight to Thriller (of which the Thriller, Beat It, Billie Jean back-to-back-to-back combo could be the best ever) and Bad.

And I will also remember Michael Jackson was the first Icon, the true American Idol, of my generation.

About joshsternberg

Josh Sternberg is the content strategist for The Washington Post. Prior to that he was the media reporter for Digiday. Additional bylines include: The Atlantic, The Awl, Pacific Standard, Mashable, Huffington Post, Mediaite.


One thought on “MJ -My Generation’s First American Idol

  1. Amen.

    Posted by Eliot | June 26, 2009, 10:01 pm

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