Browsing the works of my fellow artsjournal.com bloggers this morning, I discovered in his blog Overflow a piece by Harvey Sachs that illuminates the condition of American popular culture in the new century. Mr. Sachs, the distinguished biographer of Arturo Toscanini and Artur Rubinstein, recently repatriated to the US after decades overseas. He posted this item nearly two months ago, but it has a long shelf life. Here is an excerpt:
I had heard of Michael Jackson, knew that he was an entertainer — knew, even, that he was odd looking and that he had a sister who had bared a breast, accidentally or otherwise, before the television cameras during some sort of sporting event. (None of my friends in Europe, where I was living at the time, could understand why this had created a scandal. “Was her breast ugly?” was the closest any of them, male or female, could come to fathoming the issue.) What I did not know, however, was that at some point during my long absence from the country this Jackson fellow had replaced Jesus Christ as the primary object of worship for most Americans.
Fortunately, I was traveling in the Midwest from Friday until Tuesday morning, thus I had the incredible privilege of taking in an enormous quantity of television “news” in hotel lobbies and breakfast rooms, in restaurants, and in a few private homes. My imagination was fired by the rare chance to see how the early prophets of a new religion manipulate the masses. And on Saturday, when I realized what was about to happen, I began to tremble all over.
To read the whole thing, click here.
Welcome back to the United States, Mr. Sachs.
Larry Kart says
I believe (or hope) that there is a fair amount of calculated ironic over-kill in Mr. Sach’s post, but even so, I think that his concerns are awry. What he observed was not evidence of the overwhelming popularity of Michael Jackson and a corresponding outburst of public sentiment at his death. Rather, what he witnessed was yet another in a long string of what the late Daniel Borstein dubbed “pseudo-events” — in this case one in which the media (as in so many such events of recent vintage) was fearful that it might not get ahead of what they thought could be a storm of public sentiment and therefore decided to pump up the volume as much as possible.
There are of course many Michael Jackson fans, and his death was widely mourned. But in no way was there a widespread spontaneous national outpouring of shock or grief — certainly nothing like the broad wave of shock and sentiment that came in the wake of Elvis Presley’s death and that completely flabbergasted the major media. Having worked for a major newspaper at the time, I can testify that this was the case. In fact, the experience of frantically playing catch-up there may have been one of the key factors in shaping the media’s subsequent drive to never again be left behind in the mourning of celebrities game. Again, while this sort of abject media madness certainly has some malign effects on the public, it is not a sign that public itself has gone bonkers but evidence that media-driven pseudo-events do exist and that some people take them at face value.