Sunday, June 28, 2009

MJ's Death: the Religion of Celebrity

Like everyone else, I am saddened by the death of Michael Jackson. I spun my old "Off the Wall" vinyl in my record player just a little while ago. I couldn't help but get a little misty in the eyes knowing that the amazing talent that was Michael Jackson (especially during the "off-the-wall"/"thriller" era) was no more. Jackson was an amazing dancer. An amazing musical artist...

But the attention the story is getting is, I think, a little too over-the-top. I was watching "World News" with Charlie Gibson on Friday and it struck me how weird it was that the death of
Michael Jackson headlined the half-hour time slot. Nothing about Iraq. Nothing about Afghanistan. The most news-worthy story of the world, in the eyes of the ABC network, was the death of Michael Jackson. I mean, out of all the stories that could have headlined the world (yes WORLD) news, the "gatekeepers" chose the Michael Jackson story. Why? Because they knew this was what the public wanted, and I guess the main objective of ABC is not unlike that of any other business where the consumer's wants take precedence over the consumer's needs. (Whether this objective is an ethical objective for a news network is a different subject altogether.)

Anyway, on the front page of The Boston Globe this past Saturday I noticed a photo of a man kneeling beside Michael Jackson's Hollywood Blvd. star and saying a prayer. Surrounding him were candles and bouquets of flowers: a shrine dedicated to the deceased "king of pop". It was this image on the front page of the daily newspaper that made me realize the extent to which our culture values celebrity. I mean, I had obviously always known that our culture was obsessed with celebrity, but this image of the man kneeling in deep prayer at a shrine dedicated to Jackson made me realize that, in America, celebrities...are gods. And I almost mean this literally. It's like the death of Michael Jackson was the death of a messiah [notice the blatant Christ imagery in the above photo, which was also on the front page of the Globe].

America prides itself to be a land where we practice all sorts of religions and show reverence to all sorts of gods, but I think what nobody realizes is that there is a common religion in America that transcends all other religions: that of celebrity. This is a religion where people like Michael Jackson are so important that their deaths headline "World News" with Charlie Gibson and newspapers like The Boston Globe. Never mind the handful of soldiers who died overseas on the same day Jackson died. We don't hear about them. We only hear about Jackson. The religion of celebrity is a religion where those who are rich and famous automatically deserve more attention than those who have fallen in war.

But at least Jackson had talent, which means he is at least somewhat deserving of all this attention (although he most likely molested children and took a lot of drugs). Take somebody like Anna Nicole Smith's death, though: she didn't really have any talent...unless figuring out how to become famous for being famous is a talent. But even her death headlined the news (footage of the teary-eyed judge comes to mind). And another day went by where we overlooked the deaths of soldiers, not to mention other newsworthy stories far more deserving of our attention.

The fact of the matter is that the religion of celebrity is a religion where we show reverence to people who are not necessarily talented, but to those who have somehow figured out how to become rich and famous. I mean, it would be wishful thinking to say that celebrity is ultimately about talent; after all, somebody who is extremely talented isn't usually worshiped until they somehow figure out how to turn that talent into something that yields riches and fame.

Perhaps this is just the American way. Maybe in a land where the ultimate goal is to "make it", it makes sense that we deify those who have, indeed, "made it". And because "making it" is usually measured in terms of financial success, the real value here is on the money, not the talent. And that's the problem.

To put it simply, the celebrity-worship we see in our culture is a reflection of a culture where money is a god. When stories of a celebrity's death headline the world news (again, emphasis on 'world'), our culture is kneeling to the ground and showing reverence to the 'almighty' dollar bill.

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