Was Michael Jackson the most famous person in the world?
You could get that impression watching the reported reaction to his death Thursday. Impromptu street memorials were erected in a thousand cities as millions gathered to weep, embrace and caress wrinked photographs of Michael's deconstructed face. Social networks logged millions of messages about Michael (including an insightful Facebook inquiry from my nephew as to whether the masters of Beatles albums controlled by Jackson would be freed). His obituary in the New York Times was as wordy as the ones for Johnny Cash (the most famous person in the world in an earlier era) and Jonas Salk.
Most of the people mourning Michael never met him or saw him in concert, but virtually all of us have seen high definition images of the face where melanin went to die. His death was a personal loss. It's not like we'll miss Michael at the next class reunion or Thanksgiving gathering, but he was a part of our lives. Media have made it so.
Media have incalculable power to create the illusion we know people we don't. I've written earlier about the tears I shed at the death of President Kennedy, who was nothing more to me than organized electronic flickers on a 12-inch TV screen. Our daughter Katie adores Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen and rarely misses a re-run of Full House, where the Olsen twins are magically amalgamized into a single character, Michelle. When Katie caught a glimpse of the twins in person at a Macy's Thanksgiving parade, she screamed with the joy of meeting old friends.
Years ago, when television and I were young, it was exciting when circumstances brought us into actual contact with the people we saw on television. For most of the 1950s, the most famous person I had ever met was the weatherman on Syracuse's WSYR-TV, and I remember studying his face to detect the wrinkles, pores and hairs you couldn't see on a 12-inch screen. For me, the fact that this guy (name long-since forgotten) was on television made him more important than everyone else I knew. At about the same time I met New York Governor Averill Harriman in Albany, but I had never seen him on television, so I didn't think he was important.
Of course it's a problem if media create artificial auras for the rich and famous, because the rich and famous are no greater (and often lesser) than the folks in our neighborhoods. But it's a problem that's hard to avoid. When I was a newspaper reporter, I absolutely loved interviewing celebrities and dropping their names at social functions. Julius LaRosa was one of my favorites because his story was such a vivid illustration of the peaks and valleys of mediated fame. Julie (okay, I called him Mr. LaRosa) was one of the most famous celebrities in the U.S. from November 19, 1951 to October 19, 1953 as the lead singer on the Arthur Godfrey and His Friends television program. He was so famous, in fact, that millions of viewers remembered all their lives where they were and what they were doing that fateful October day when Arthur fired Julie on the air. When I met him, Mr. LaRosa was singing on cruise lines that catered to an older demographic.
When Michael Jackson died yesterday, the media spotlight flared so intensely that anyone could see how uncomfortable it must have made him in life. He was phenomenally talented ... he was an abused child ... he was ashamed of the face he was born with ... he was an obsessive spender ... he was closeted ... he was a child molester ...
Some of those defects were obvious to casual observers, others were denied by friends and one was dismissed by a jury. But wherever the truth may lie, it appears the glare of the light was a source of immense pain to him. Perhaps Michael Jackson was the most famous person in the world. But perhaps that was one of the things that destroyed him.
Julie LaRosa's fame was short-lived, but in the 45 minutes I was his best friend, I didn't get the impression he was bothered by his relative obscurity. I interviewed him several years ago at the opening of Boscov's Department Store in Pottstown. I watched as he entertained an audience of 60-something women, occasionally stopping to hold a woman's hand and gaze into her eyes as he sang an old love song. ("You have such warm hands," he'd say to the hyperventilating woman, "You must have a warm heart.") When he finished his performance, he escorted me into a back room, sat down and held up a cigarette. "Please don't mention this," he said, lighting up. The interview must have been boilerplate of a thousand he had given before ("Arthur was not a gentleman. I was getting more fan mail than he was ..."), and I wrote it all down. But as he talked about his wife and daughters and grandchildren, I got the impression of a very happy man.
Maybe Arthur did him a favor. He didn't let the media raise Julie to that pinnacle of fame where we would have regarded him as more important as everyone else we knew.
That kind of attention is destructive, especially so because we can't seem to help it. Fame is so seductive and meeting famous people is so cool.
I don't know if there was any way for Michael Jackson to escape that kind of destruction, or whether he would have been happier and lived longer if his singing career had ended when the Jackson Five disappeared from the charts.
But as the media continue to blare his unexpected death as "the top story of the day," I wonder if it isn't in many ways a sweet release for the King of Pop.