Friday, July 3, 2009

The Most Famous Guy in the World

Obviously, there's been quite a bit of ink spilled over Michael Jackson in the last week. If you want to see a great reflection on Jackson's career, go check out Rob Mentzer's look at how MJ stacks up with the Eagles. For a truly lazy and insipid pile of crap, see Jonathan Krause.

Since a lot has been said about Jackson's talent as a musician, entertainer, businessman, as well as the sketchier as aspects of his life (which were legion), it's probably time to take a step back and look at the big picture of Jackson's fame. Michael Jackson was probably the single most famous living person in the history of the world. I can't think of a single person who commanded the degree of fame that he did for as long as he did and I'd challenge anyone to do the same.

It's often said that the President of the United States is the most powerful man in the world, but he is hardly the most famous. In fact, there's evidence to suggest that public officials are actually becoming less famous with the proliferation of media alternatives. Also, a president's fame begins to decline precipitously the moment he leaves office. Sure, a President's influence can be felt well after their time in power has ended, but generally speaking, their fame declines as their actions move from the newspapers to the history books.

Here's an example:
To put things in perspective, when Ronald Reagan died, I don't think I had anyone contact me about it until the next day. But within minutes (yes, minutes) of Jackson's death, I had six or seven dialogs going. And while some might see this more as a testament to our increased interconnectivity in today's modern age, I see it as a display of just how much this man meant to the world, even though many of us (such as myself) didn't really realize it.

Everyone knows who Michael Jackson was, and not just here in America, but around the world. Maybe, maybe, Princess Diana approached that level of fame, but I still don't think she approached Jackson in terms of raw name recognition.

Part of that is due to technology. By the mid-1970s transistor radios were cheap enough to make and buy that they could be found all over the world, even the most remote and desolate places were human beings dared to live and if you could get a reception, chances are you were listening to Michael Jackson at some point.

But much more of it is due to the musics itself. Even if you knew nothing of his, um, eccentric personal life, you knew his music. You didn't need to speak English to know that the guy had a gift for placing a "hee-HEE" in exactly the right place. And people were just as fanatical about him regardless of where his music was being played: Japan, Russia, Africa, Europe, South America -- it's a helluva thing to be able to create something the transcends just about every language, culture and musical tradition in the world.

Yet to just talk about the music alone -- even though it was brilliant -- is to ignore just how much of a visual artist Jackson was. Prior to Michael Jackson, television was used more or less like radio to by musicians. The Beatles could be stuck on a small stage in the corner of the dingiest bar in Liverpool and the set won't look much different than if they were playing at the Budokon. They just stood there and played their instruments. Elvis danced, but he could have done his set standing on a bar stool. Michael Jackson needed the entire stage and performances were positively Wagnarian in scope during the hey day of his career. (We might seriously devote an entire post to just the Moonwalk in the future.) And that's not even touching on how he essentially invented the music video...

Jackson's fame is probably something only a musician can accomplish, but may never accomplish again. In many ways his career followed the same trajectory as the fortunes of the music industry in the last half century, which is slowly coming to grips with the reality that it is best served by catering to niche audiences than gambling on the ever elusive mega-act. It's almost impossible to fathom just how famous this guy was. Everyone dreams about being famous at some point in time, but Jackson achieved a level of fame that no one previously thought was possible. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing, but it's certainly an amazing thing.

MORE: via Katie Rosenberg.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful observations. Thank you for not just making rude comments about his other troubles. While it is fair to talk about those things, they should be kept in the right perspective and they should not overshadow the amazing talent he was and all that he did or gave to the world. May be rest in peace and God watch over his children and family.

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