Observing Michael Jackson’s death in Memphis
|Mourning Jackson on the streets of Boston, Mass.|
It’s the week of Michael Jackson’s funeral, and I’m waiting for the last flight out of Memphis. Everywhere in the deserted airport you can hear CNN blaring about breaking developments in the Jackson case.
A woman beside me is wearing a Jackson memorial shirt featuring the likeness of a cherubic Jackson 5 –era Michael, engulfed by enormous angel wings. Nearby, I overhear a conversation about the price increases in Jackson vinyl albums.
Amazingly, Jackson is simultaneously both dead, and right back at the forefront of popular culture. It’s a trick not many people manage.
I find it both supremely ironic and tragic that I’m seeing all this in the Memphis airport. It’s a space where you just can’t avoid Elvis. In Memphis, it’s amazingly easy to forget “The King” died on a toilet, with an overly potent drug cocktail in his system, and long past the peak of his career.
I was eight when Elvis died. That night as I was going to bed, my mother came in and turned on the bedside radio so that I could drift to sleep listening to Elvis music and the updates about his death. She thought it was an important historical moment that I should experience.
Yet at the Memphis airport, it’s like Elvis never left.
Directly across from my gate is a sign advertising the Heartbreak Hotel (just five minutes from the airport!), with a slogan reading: “Let Elvis Rock You to Sleep.” The Memphis airport boasts an Elvis store and a Sun Records shop, along with a guitar/piano motif. In the deserted terminal, I picked up brochures for “The Elvis Cruise” and “Experience Graceland.” It’s often been said that Elvis has become a bigger act since he’s been dead than while he was alive. He’s certainly the most vital thing going on at the airport, even though he’s been dead some thirty-odd years. Given the scene back at my departure gate, I can’t help but wonder if Jackson will have that same sort of career trajectory as a dead man. I rather doubt it.
Having been of prime sleepover age during Jackson’s peak “Thriller” years, I was certainly aware of Jackson’s music, dancing and cultural pull. In his heyday, my girlfriends and I were always trying—and failing—to copy his dance steps.
Yet I’ve never owned a single Jackson record, and as I missed having MTV in the 80’s, his videos weren’t burned onto my brain. Still, I could easily pick a Jackson tune out of a lineup, and I’d stake actual cash money on my knowing all the words to the entire “Thriller” album. He’s as much a part of my pop culture past as my failed attempt at Farrah hair.
Staying up late watching the initial reports about Jackson’s death reminded me of the last time I had stayed up stayed up staring at a screen to follow news about Jackson. If you are of age, you might recall the 1984 incident where Jackson caught his hair caught on fire while filming a Pepsi commercial. I remember it vividly, partly because I was at a sleepover when the event happened. Totally concerned, we kept vigil for Jackson at a portable black-and-white television, monitoring the fuzzy broadcast for news about the injured singer. Yet, since that incident, he had faded further and further from my consciousness.
Then again, my consciousness isn’t exactly like everyone else’s. There are a lot of times in life where I feel like I’m missing out on the most popular bits of pop culture. My television viewing veers towards “Doctor Who” rather than “Dancing With the Stars.” I live in the countercultural bubble of Austin, Texas, where my friends wear homemade tie-die while doing their organic gardening. My first-ever camping trip this past May was to a local clothing-optional event. In the rest of the country, I stick out like a macramé shawl at a gala, but in Austin, I pass for normal.
Being from the Austin bubble, I was a little surprised to find myself captivated by the collective national moment of mourning brought on by Jackson’s death. I wasn’t so moved by the fact that he died, more by the fact that the pop culture world was knocked off its axis by his death.
The day Jackson died, I was in Boston. Walking around the fashionable shopping area of Newbury Street, every car seemed to be tuned to one of the now all-Jackson stations. People were holding homemade posterboard signs memorializing Jackson. At the hotel that night, I couldn’t force myself to turn off the television reports on his death.
It’s very strange that Jackson’s death made me notice him in a way that his life never did. The allegations of child abuse snuffed out whatever enthusiasm I ever had for his music. I didn’t even know about his comeback shows in London until a friend told me he’d bought tickets. I didn’t enter the lottery to attend his memorial. Despite my constant desire to be where the action is, I couldn’t justify taking a spot away from someone who wanted to be there to actually mourn.
Yet as much a part of my childhood that Jackson was, I doubt that opening Jackson’s Neverland Ranch to the public would result in the same public draw that Graceland still has.
Graceland is, at heart, the biggish house that a southern boy done good bought to please his mamma. For all it’s alleged bad-taste, it reflects the aesthetic vision of a self-made man who bought what he liked and what was fashionable at the time. (I personally think the jungle room at Graceland is sweet, not tacky.)
It’s an unfortunate development for Santa Barbara County, California, where Neverland Ranch is located, that Jackson’s legal and personal troubles far overshadow Jackson’s musical legacy for some of us. Otherwise, they might have another tourist-mecca on their hands, like Memphis has with Graceland.