Past Event

Michael Jackson, global celebrity: Larger than life—and death

"Ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma coo sa."

Perhaps that refrain from Michael Jackson’s hit "Wanna Be Startin’ Something" played in your head after the news on June 25 that he had died, two weeks before his series of comeback concerts were set to begin in London. People everywhere, it seems, could relate to something about the man who was arguably America’s biggest pop culture export.

Shock. Grief. Denial. Celebration. Fellow celebrities, Jackson’s friends, and people who never met him reacted to the megastar’s death with a collective response unlike that seen since perhaps the tragic accident that killed Britain’s Princess Diana. When she died, though, no one had the Internet, Facebook, and Twitter to broadcast story after story, or their personal feelings, around the world. For almost three days, the Jackson story occupied prime real estate on both CNN and the New York Times’ websites, two of the most visited news outlets online. 

In the hours following Jackson’s death, major websites crept or crashed under the crush of traffic from people wanting details on the pop star’s life, legacy, and final moments. The Los Angeles Times’ Tim Rutten wrote: "When Jackson’s death was first reported, traffic across the Internet spiked to virtually unprecedented levels. Google’s search engine slowed to a crawl; Yahoo reported ‘one of the biggest things’ in its history; social networks Twitter and Facebook nearly collapsed under the weight of traffic." AOL consumer adviser Regina Lewis called the day of Jackson’s death a historic milestone for mobile Internet traffic.

Then, after taking less than a day to ponder the meaning of Jackson’s life and death, the pundits started weighing in-again news and social media sites helping to broadcast it all. Many used his death to hold a mirror up to the public.

Margo Jefferson, a former New York Times critic and Pulitzer Prize-winner who wrote the 2006 book, On Michael Jackson, called him a "post-modern shape-shifter" and wondered why he embodied "so many of our conflicts and fantasies." In a Washington Post commentary, she wrote: "We Americans are childish about our celebrities and icons. We worship, then we denounce; we identify passionately with them and then, if they do something-anything-we dislike, we cast them off. We actually have a chance to treat Michael Jackson differently. We can live with his outsize torment and self-abuse. At the same time, we can bask in his outsize talent and artistry. They aren’t a well-matched pair. They don’t have to be. He was flawed, and he was sublimely gifted." 

On Twitter, fans and detractors left hundreds of thousands of short messages about Jackson, expressing wide-ranging opinions-from his musical legacy and disgust toward his father to his obsession with plastic surgery over the years. Jackson’s complicated life, which mixed mega-stardom with personal eccentricities, provided opinion fodder for people of all ages and races and every corner of the globe.

In life and death, it’s clear that Michael Jackson captivated millions. Having his music to play is now only one way to keep him alive. Through the Internet, fans can post and share their favorite videos and photos of him with almost anyone in the world. Many facets of life played out in front of millions-and now, so his is death.

What was your reaction to Jackson’s death? What role did the Internet play in helping you keep up with the news? What do you think about the level of media coverage of his death? Did networks such as CNN spend too much time on the Jackson story? Do you think the Internet helped keep the Jackson story in the news longer than is usual for a celebrity death? What is it about Jackson’s death that stirs the biggest interest for most people? Do you have a theory about what happened in the last minutes of his life?

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