And so Michael Jackson is to be put to rest – or his physical form is at least. There is no doubt that his name, his brand and his image will live on for as long as it makes money. Death is merely a chapter break in the life of Michael Jackson – it’s not a full stop.
The allegations of paedophilia that haunted Jackson’s final years have all but disappeared and now is the time for a show to close that chapter of Jackson’s life – a show to end all shows and to begin new ones. The funeral seems to be gearing up to be a show for people to demonstrate love and adoration for Jackson – but it also seems to be more about the people commemorating Jackson than about Jackson himself. Shaheen Jafargholi, who sang a Jackson song on Britain’s Got Talent, will be there, singing alongside Stevie Wonder, Mariah Carey and more.
Like Princess Diana before, the crowds are gathering to mutually support each other at the Staples Centre and mutually assure that they forget the rough patches in Jackson’s life. But I’m more interested in the people who aren’t going to be there – David Blaine is in this country, Lisa Marie Presley is abroad. How will they be mourning?
There’s another funeral Jackson’s looks set to resemble – that of Phineas Taylor Barnum. It’s curious, given the freakish nature of much of Jackson’s life in the limelight, that his funeral should resemble that of the man who travelled the world with a freak show. But Barnum was canny enough to know that he was dying and well loved enough to get a copy of his own obituary a day or two before he died. It’s hard to imagine Jackson even countenancing the idea that he might die.
Here’s a report on the funeral of Barnum, written a little after the event over 100 years ago.
“The morning was cold, gray, and dismal. Nature’s heart, with the spring joy put back and deadened, symboled the melancholy that had fallen upon Bridgeport. No town was ever more transformed than was this city by one earthly event. On the public and private buildings were hung the habiliments of woe; flags were at half mast, and, in the store windows were to be seen innumerable portraits and likenesses of the dead citizen, surrounded by dark drapery, or embedded in flowers.
“Nor was this all. The people on the street and in the windows of their houses seemed to be thinking of but one thing–their common loss. The pedestrian walked slower; the voices of talkers, even among the rougher classes, were more subdued, and in their looks was imprinted the unmistakable signal of no common or ordinary bereavement.
“The large church was not only filled, with its lecture-room, a considerable time before the hour set for the services; but thousands of people crowded the sidewalks near-by for hours, knowing they could only see the arrival and departure of the funeral cortege. The private services at the house, “Marina,” near the Seaside Park, which preceded the public services in the church, were simple and were only witnessed and participated in by the relatives and immediate friends.”
It will be interesting to see how long the current state of post-Jackson euphoria-in-loss lasts – a lot of smoke went up over the allegations that marred his final years. Will any of it be blown away in the coming months? One thing is certain; if a brand is powerful enough and has enough money behind it, anything unsavoury can be made to disappear, as the fixers at MGM proved in the 1930s.
I’ll close with another quote from the report on Barnum’s death:
“When, in 1889, the veteran brought over his shipload of giants and dwarfs, chariots and waxworks, spangles and circus-riders, to entertain the people of London, one wanted a Carlyle to come forward with a discourse upon ‘the Hero as Showman.’ It was the ne plus ultra of publicity. There was a three-fold show–the things in the stalls and cages, the showman, and the world itself. And of the three perhaps Barnum himself was the most interesting. The chariot races and the monstrosities we can get elsewhere, but the octogenarian showman was unique. His name is a proverb already, and a proverb it will continue.”
Jackson was, without doubt, a huge brand at the heart of a huge, freakish circus and was the most interesting thing in it – as the recent outpourings prove. But will Jackson become a proverb – or just a bogeyman? Only time will tell.