Photo: Anwar Hussein/WireImage; courtesy of Life.com
I’m sad, but not that sad, about Michael Jackson’s death. To me, it seemed like he’d passed from us a long time ago. The Kane of Pop had long since retreated into his isolated Xanadu, a bubble that not even massive debt, legal ordeals, and endless tabloid scandal could penetrate. His chart-topping years as the world’s favorite entertainer had long since segued into self-inflicted freakishness and cultural irrelevance. When he announced in March a long-running comeback engagement in London scheduled to start in July, his reappearance seemed that of a vampire or a ghost, hovering on the fringes of fame, hoping to drain one last bit of energy from a pop world that he had helped create but which had long since abandoned him to the wax museum.
But, oh, to think of him back then, back when he was remaking both music and television in his image, via the singles and videos from Thriller. The man’s ubiquity was rivaled only by that of the Beatles and his one-time father-in-law Elvis in their day. Lots of mourners have referred to Jackson’s music as the soundtrack of their youth, but in his case, it’s not a metaphor. For about two years in the early ’80s, you couldn’t turn on a radio anywhere in the world without hearing a snippet of a single from Thriller. (How cruel that Farrah Fawcett should die on the same day; if Jackson’s music was the soundtrack to our youth, Fawcett’s poster was the wallpaper.) It was a rare moment of cultural unity, one of the last ones before cable TV, the Internet, and the culture wars fragmented us into a billion different niche audiences. As Lester Bangs noted when Elvis died, what we’re mourning is not really the loss of the man or the artist (like the King of Pop, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll had long since become a reclusive travesty of his former self by the time of his early death), but rather, the loss of our childhood, and the loss of our connection to each other. Continue reading
The future isn’t what it used to be, said Yogi Berra. It’s certainly not, now that I’m its beat reporter. All this week, through June 12, I’m guest editor/blogger at io9, Gawker Media’s sci-fi/pop futurism blog. Whether or not you’re a sci-fi fan, please stop by, geek out, and have fun.
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Remember when George W. Bush became president, and the pundits said that, at last, the grownups were now in charge? (And how did that work out, by the way?) It’s a lot easier to imagine that the grownups are in charge now that the cool, seemingly unflappable, roll-up-your-sleeves Barack Obama is president, and when he took office, I felt a surge of almost familial pride. At last, the reins of power were passing to someone roughly my age (Obama is about five years older than I am.)
I felt a similar emotion this week when Conan O’Brien took over The Tonight Show. Johnny Carson had made the forum into the voice of national consensus; Jay Leno tried to maintain that role even as consensus crumbled around him (we’re a much more fragmented, factionalized people now, not just in terms of our politics, but also in our tastes in pop culture and our countless entertainment options). Now that desk was passing to someone of my generation (Conan is four years older than I am), and it felt like a momentous, torch-passing occasion.
The president himself seemed to acknowledge the similarity between these two transitions in his interview with NBC’s Brian Williams this week (see above video). It was a puzzling moment; Time columnist James Poniewozik seemed to find it crass that Williams spent valuable face time with the president getting Obama to plug an entertainment event on Williams’ network, and O’Brien himself wondered why the leader of the free world should be devoting any attention to Conan’s career move. But such pluggery is standard procedure these days for TV news (which is more entertainment than news anyway, with the cotton-candy puffery throughout Williams’ primetime special as just another example), and the fact that Obama responded to Williams’ prompt not by saying, “You’ve got to be kidding me,” but by deadpanning a good joke about it without missing a beat indicates that, not only is Obama as media-savvy a chief executive as we’ve ever seen, but also is thoroughly conversant with the ironic, absurdist humor that is Conan’s (and our generation’s) preferred mode of expression. Continue reading