Saturday, June 27, 2009

On Burning Out, Fading Away, and the Death of Michael Jackson

Afterschool Thursday, I told Mira and Filifili that Michael Jackson died, and after reacting to the news, Mira asked, “What time did this happen?” I thought about giving my answer in Pacific Daylight Time, and then I considered Samoa time, but then I shrugged and said, “During Interval.” We all chuckled. Black humour, but humour nonetheless. But the more I think about it, the more appropriate it is that he died in the middle of the day here because I feel a little in the middle about his death.

Where were you when you heard Heath Ledger died? How about when Ray Charles died? I know exactly where I was when I heard about Ledger: I was working at my desk at CNET when Carmen called out, “Heath Ledger died.” There was an online frenzy. I probably sent an instant message to 20 people. The time between when his body was found and the time word spread to my buddy list was maybe an hour.

I don’t remember how I learned that Ray Charles died. The media fanfare was different back in March 2005 with Facebook just budding and Twitter non-existent or the wide use of text messaging in the United States, but there wasn’t much immediate fanfare anyway. As much as it was news, it wasn’t completely unexpected. Charles was old. News of Charles’s death didn’t oblige the immediacy or intensity of Ledger’s.

In my generation’s first real brush with celebrity death, a passage in Kurt Cobain’s suicide note read, “It is better to burn out than to fade away.” Perhaps this logic explains why Ledger’s death was a media event and Charles’s was quieter and less urgent: Ledger’s star was still burning bright while Charles’s fame had cooled. Though Charles was only 58 when he died, his passing made sense; he got older and he died. Ledger’s death was an anomaly; it was senseless.

And that’s where I think Kurt Cobain is wrong. Perhaps it is amazing to watch a star burn out, but it doesn’t compute. Other than the tragedy of the celebrity lifestyle, there’s nothing to be gained from Ledger’s death. On the other hand, I remember feeling devastated by Charles’s death. His music has a lively glow that endures so well it seems impermeable to aging and death. Charles’s death can’t be blamed on accident or a rock and roll lifestyle; Charles died of complications from old age. That’s a lot more ominous; it’s something none of us can avoid. Perhaps fading away is less shocking, but on some level it is far more menacing.

So did Michael Jackson burn out, or did he fade away? I think he did both.

Media standards point toward burn out. Even in Samoa, I received text messages from Luisa and my sister before and after the news was official. And as soon as I read the first text, I immediately needed to tell someone. Since Digicel has a promotion right now I had 30 free text messages, and I texted half of Peace Corps Samoa with the news. Within 10 minutes of the man’s death in Los Angeles, the news was relayed to rural Savai’i.

Jackson’s death was captivating and awful. He was only 50 years old; by no means an old man. He’d been so hard on his body over the years, and it took its toll. He died young. His death was senseless.

And though his star has certainly faded, its brightness was still shocking. On Thursday afternoon, I had a couple minutes left when I was done with my less in 9.1, so I asked the class if they knew who Michael Jackson was. Despite the kids only being 13 years old, and even though they live in developing country, all of them knew who he was. They were familiar enough with him that when I asked if they knew he had died, they all looked at me like I was crazy. He wasn’t some obscure figure; they knew him well enough that they knew he was still relevant and almost certainly alive. So they shook their heads. I had to clarify that he actually died that day. And when they finally understood, they were shocked.

But it’s undeniable that Jackson’s star had faded. With the scandals and the plastic surgery and the Jesus Juice, things had gotten weird. “Thriller” came out 26 years ago. The man was weathered by life.

So what does that mean that he burned out and faded away? I think in some ways it brings things to a new level. It is wholly deserving of a media event, of specials on TV and radio, of seemingly unending coverage on VH1 (although I’m told VH1 coverage has been minimal). Even on the big radio station here in Samoa, Magik 98.1, they’ve been playing all kinds of MJ tributes. And why not? There’s a lot to make sense of. He had aged, but he was still a star. Still a big star. A big star who had aged. Pretty ominous.

And yet I can’t help feeling ambivalent. The intensity of the media fanfare didn’t have the Heath Ledger intensity because with all of Jackson’s strange health issues, it wasn’t entirely surprising. And I don’t know that his fade away is as menacing as Charles’s; he essentially burned out in the early 1990s, and his life since then has been completely outside my reality.

The man was iconic, and I respect that people are in mourning. But I can't help feeling a little ambivalent. If anything, I feel like we've all been in some kind of mourning over Michael Jackson for a long time.

In any case, I hope you’re not forgetting the Jackson 5 LPs. Pictures below.

Briony and Erin 78. Erin 78 is finished with her service. She leaves Monday. This and the pictures below were taken at her goodbye dinner last night.

Rosie, Sara, Cale, Casey.

Cale and Christian.

Casey, Kate, Koa, Erin, Sara.


Sonya said...

Talofa lava Matt,
I enjoy popping in and out on a regular basis to hear what you have been up to in Savai'i.
Malo lava le galue.
I miss Samoa so much.
I miss the language, the smells and the sights.
So when I pop in to hear what you are up to, it is like keeping up with home.
Thank you for sharing your diary.
Alofa atu i tamaiti uma o lou aoga.
Fa'amanuia oe mai le Atua mo lou galuega.
If you are looking for an email, twitter, wiki buddy for your class, bounce me an email.
Tofa Soifua

Anonymous said...

Great reflections. Very sad but then it's been sad for a long time.

Arseneault Family said...

personally, i think you could relate more to Ledger's death then MJ's because of your age - potentially the reason for the conflict?? in "north america", i found that the people most affected were closer to his age. it was an interesting time. the media coverage here was fascinating (that they dedicated their entire sites to his death - like a cnn). i didn't get that same sense with Ledger. just my unsolicited two cents.