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From a celebrity’s death, truly American tribute

He was a celebrity spectacle like no other, so it seemed natural that Michael Jackson’s end unfolded the same way.
/ Source: The Associated Press

“I just don’t believe that Michael would want me to share my grief with millions of others,” one of Michael Jackson’s closest friends said on Twitter this week. “I cannot be part of the public whoopla.”

But on Tuesday, a very curious day in the republic of epic productions, Elizabeth Taylor — hardly a stranger to living the public life — seemed just about the only one.

He was a celebrity spectacle like no other, so it seemed natural that Michael Jackson’s end unfolded the same way. The staging of his final show Tuesday commandeered the heart of the city of fame, turning millions of his fans into lottery players who chased unlikely dreams of front-row goodbyes.

The result: an unparalleled, though strikingly sedate, public memorial that offered, like his jumbled life, a little something for everyone who went looking.

Sharing grief with millions of others — on TV, in mass spectacles and across the gossamer human connection known as the Internet — has become as American as, say, churning out fresh disposable idols on reality TV.

This was eulogy as performance art, public outpouring as premium content — and, not accidentally, funeral as variety show. To call it a last performance is barely metaphorical. The service alone was a guided tour of American show business — a little gospel telethon, a little Grammy ceremony, a little “Soul Train,” a little “Weekly Top 40,” even a little “Circus of the Stars.”

The public mourning of prematurely departed celebrities isn’t new in America. More than 100,000 people, many of them weeping, turned out in 1926 for the New York funeral of Rudolph Valentino. It has only accelerated in recent decades: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, John Lennon, Princess Diana. And of course there was Jackson’s former father-in-law and brother in stratospheric fame, Elvis.

But contained communal lament is one thing. What unfolded on Tuesday and in the days leading up to it felt like something else — something magnified beyond even the usual American embrace of the epic.

“In life, he was rejected by so many different groups of people. But, in death, everyone seems to want to claim him,” said Jennifer James McCollum, 41, of Oklahoma City, who writes about generational issues in her blog, JenX67.

This absurdly talented, weird, tragic man who contained so many of the things that perplex and consume modern America — from race and sex to obsession with appearance and attachment to childhood — seems to have touched most every chord at once.

“There are many Michaels for many souls,” said CNN contributor Bryan Monroe, who interviewed Jackson at length in 2007 when he was editorial director of Ebony magazine.

There are also, suddenly, many more ways to connect, lament, magnify, share. The emerging mythology — that the communications explosion that followed Jackson’s death almost “broke the Internet” — suggests both the emergence of new communities and the hunger for some kind of mass public square of sentiment.

“People want to be a part of something. And this is something really memorable. Why did everybody go to Woodstock?” asked Rosemary Hornak, a psychology professor at Meredith College in North Carolina who studies how people remember.

Now they can. No longer, as in Sunday morning services, do you just turn to your pewmate and shake hands. This is the age of the global funeral, the interactive death, with mourners always on hand to prolong the experience — either with a big-time celebrity lament or a simple online guest book for a beloved great-aunt.

“The Internet was originally an exchange of ideas. It’s almost as if, with Web 2.0, it’s about exchanging emotions,” said Paul Soper, 25, who works in retail in Columbus, Ohio.

That’s not the only change, though. The usual suspects — a 24-hour news cycle, the digitization of music and imagery, the fragmentation of society, the democratization of the arts — helped set the stage for Tuesday’s service and its runup.

In fact, some of the precise pathways that Michael Jackson so pivotally carved, such as pioneering the music video and mixing black and white traditions, helped create the cultural place for an event like this.

“It’s pop art. But just walking down the street in America today is pop art,” said John Tebeau, a New York artist who uses cartoon art to interpret popular culture in his paintings.

Beyond the closed roads, the costly security and the funerary hyperbole (“simply the greatest entertainer that ever lived,” Motown founder Berry Gordy said), one notion seemed to reign. The man who built a reputation as one of the most reclusive entertainers of our era was, to hear almost everyone tell it, a universal and personal inspiration to millions.

“You believed in Michael and he believed in you. He made you believe in yourself,” Queen Latifah told mourners. And in the context of our continuously refracted society, she nailed it.

In the end, Jackson was indeed the man in the mirror — our mirror. No matter that sometimes it was a fun-house mirror. No matter that, behind the music, we didn’t always like the reflection that peered back at us. No matter that, finally, the mirror was cracked beyond any hope of repair. The big goodbye was what mattered, and it was the show of a lifetime.

“Death,” Jim Morrison once said, “is only going to happen to you once. I don’t want to miss it.” Today his grave at Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris is overrun by people wanting to touch a piece of him, even if only a hunk of granite.

It was the same way with Michael Jackson. On Tuesday, people who never actually saw him in real life — those who adored him, those who danced to him, even those who thought he was a freak — amassed to say they just wanted to see him one last time.

And in their expressions, one thing seemed clear: In death, as in life, Michael Jackson remains a product — bought, sold and looked upon, scorned and glorified and admired. And still, forever, coveted.

The endless gaze, the endless desire for more. What’s a bigger part of the modern American experience than that?