Anyone old enough, remembers where they were when they heard that Kennedy was assassinated. In the 1977 I was in a coach car park when people shouted – literally wailed – over the death of Elvis Presley. I remember the assassination of Lennon. Kurt Cobain’s ‘official’ gunshot wound to the head and the loss of Freddie Mercury. Last week I first heard the rumours about Michael Jackson whilst watching TV. My fears were soon confirmed via my fellow lost souls on Twitter. At least for Presley, his family had the dignity of learning the news in private, before it being announced to the global plebs by a local celebrity gossip website.
As with Presley and Cobain, once the news was out, the media became preoccupied with stories related to the King of Pop’s career and conspiracies surrounding alleged addiction to drugs. Radio talk shows moaned with people lamenting Jackson’s loss. (The same chattering classes who years earlier phoned and texted radio shows to criticise Jackson’s penchant for sharing his bed with children).
Listening to the collective grief over the radio and watching the endless televised and YouTube footage of Jackson’s story, reminded me of the loss of Diana, Princess of Wales. Tales of her selfless devotion to charities and cruel marriage to Prince Charles were broadcast around the clock. We were told of a beautiful, simple girl thrust into the public gaze, hounded to death by commission earning freelance paparazzi press.
In Jackson’s case the stories related to a man with the child in his eyes. He was the reported protégé of a demanding father prepared to sacrifice his son’s childhood for the chance of family fame and fortune. Unlike Diana, Jackson’s image was far from perfect, his Dorian Gray face had been twisting and bending this way and that for years before our eyes. Nobody knew how he would die, but given his appearances in wheelchairs and displays of public mania, many suspected that the lifeline etched in his palm had always been short.
Just as with Elvis, Freddie, John, Kurt and Diana, the story of Jackson is destined to become a legend of a person who enjoyed external excess but was crippled by internal anguish and loss. A familiar tale that is the bread and butter hard luck story of just about every modern celebrity or Britain’s Got a Chutzpah wanna-be.
The day after Jackson’s death, in London, the Sony award-winning radio broadcaster, Nic Ferrari spoke to a typical middle-aged female caller who, within 45 seconds broke down into tears. “I am so sorry,” she said. “Are you crying because Michael has gone?” asked Ferrari. “I am crying because he was such a good man, so misunderstood.” “But you never actually met him”, replied Ferrari. “I know. It’s that I just feel that he was part of all of us. He was part of my growing up and what happened to him is a kind of morality tale – especially in these days of the world being what is.”
The lady hit the proverbial nail on the head. Jackson, Mercury et al, were not simply titillating celebrities. They transcended the level of casual entertainer to become spiritual kins people –providing a soul-partnership that was lacking in real life.
That depth of attachment to an audience is precisely the aim of brands wishing to paint perceptions of being more than recycled plastic; not just phone but a way of life… not just a running shoe but a training mentor. Not just a dress – a stylish statement about you. Not just a financial institution – a partner for your future…
Our planet is heaving with 65 billion people bombarded with visual perceptions of what constitutes success. In the face of overwhelming odds, most either capitulate to mediocrity, and celebrate the fact that they are honestly doing what they can and make the most of it or opt to take the easiest advertised route towards making any kind of impression on someone. This has made the pursuit of celebrity a key currency in the quest for recognition and self worth. Even Jackson himself – at one time one of the world’s richest men – craved greater recognition and regard, literally carving it out of his own public face.
Mercury’s passing away from AIDs and Presley’s death on a toilet evacuating the rotting excesses of his all-consuming consumerism were indicative of an era. Jackson too was definitely a person of the moment. His reckless spending on worthless trinkets was legendary. But perhaps just a lavish version of what most ordinary people do when depressed – go shopping for advertised branded items promising just a little bit of momentary self-esteem. His manipulation by more powerful authorities, including Arab sheiks who toyed with him as a play thing, magnified current divisions between the ‘haves’ and ‘once-hads’. His reported yearning for simple innocence, whilst questionable and definitely uncomfortable, was for older fans, tired of the double standards offered in adult life at least understandable.
Jackson’s death has seen shelves of his music at Amazon warehouses emptied overnight. Doubtless, his songs will now find a brand new market with teenagers revelling in 80s retro.
However, Jackson’s core audience resolutely remains the middle-aged who recognise the notion of taking a second chance as a means of escape from the insanely ordinary or increasingly ordinarily insane. Like any middle-aged ‘once-had’ man he planned a final Don Quixotic lunge at life. In his case the plan was to try and balance his ridiculously unbalanced books, resurrect his former glories through no less than 50 full-on concerts that most half his age wouldn’t even dream of delivering. In addition to earning him $150 million, the gruelling gigs could have helped fill the deafening silence left after he left ‘stage right’.
For the middle-aged audience Jackson’s greatest cache is nostalgia for a world that, like his Neverland ranch, perhaps never was, but in their minds, may possibly become.
So in the end, the immensely talented Jackson ended up another brand full of capacity but ultimately empty of fulfilling his complete promise. His death will no doubt make the ‘MJ’ brand even more evocative and so profitable to his under-financed (reportedly to the tune of $330 million) estate. In return his accountants can anticipate strong sales of books, movies and rights to his legend. Like Elvis, he may have left the stage but his name will still add digits on credit card payments.
The question of whether any brand – commercial, sports, entertainment, academic political or personal, should play on emotive issues to espouse the notion that happiness and worth comes from exploiting consumerism is a closed one – the answer is sadly resolutely ‘yes’. And arguably from a commercial point of view why not? Throw in highly publicised corporate social responsibility initiatives on the part of the brand, and any misgivings over-indulgence on the part of consumers even during a recession, become much more palatable.
Beyond the pop group, The Jackson Five, Michael Jackson’s hey-day was during the self-assured Eighties. Today for some, it may seem that the world is neither as certain of itself or united in identity and social purpose. In the UK at least, rather than offer employees genuine support during difficult times – far more valuable than money alone – many conceited organisations in one way or another, use the current recession as an excuse to cut jobs, slash pay rises and ‘rationalise’ or ‘streamline’ organisational structures.
Too many hard working cultural heroes like Jackson have been replaced by a society demanding more substance for less sustenance.
For many, values in every walk of life are different than during the 80s. Then, success and talent was rewarded. Today it is viewed as a threat against the status quo of blandness for all. Less jobs with more people chasing them is creating a society of over-qualified candidates being eventually remunerated as if they had no qualifications at all. Everything is accepted without question by workers because of the new mantra of “Well we could get it done for half the money.”
Unsurprisingly looking at the horizon that like Jackson’s appeal is neither definitively black or white, many- especially the young – turn to precisely what drove and eventually helped bring down the King of Pop – celebrity. Talented people walk as if zombies in the Thriller video, hand in hand, two-by-two with clearly talentless people towards an ark of promised respect, doomed to be sunk by a flood of demands for instant gratification and disposability.
No wonder as I listen to Jackson over my iPod and read the headlines of his family removing all his assets from the family home before the bailiffs get to them, I pause to reflect over and remember the man whilst contemplating the lyrics of one of his songs: “What have we done to the world, look what we’ve done. What about all the peace that you pledge your only son”…
What indeed – and what can responsible brands and custodians of brand icons of every kind do to improve?