Never say never in Neverland

July 11, 2009



The Christian Science Monitor has joined the chorus whose song is that Michael Jackson was likely one of the the last “mega-stars.”

A story in the Monitor this week, written by Stephen Humphries, included these passages:

That Jackson could command such an audience is testament to the kind globe-straddling star power that was possible in an earlier, simpler entertainment age. Amid today’s fragmented popular culture, in which an unlimited buffet of mass media has segregated consumers into niche-oriented tribes, Jackson was arguably one of the world’s last superstars.

“It isn’t just that Michael Jackson was the last superstar because he was one of the last people to benefit from an unfragmented media,” says Timothy Burke, a cultural historian at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. “He may also have been one of the last people who could surprise us with a stunning innovation where we didn’t have that sense already of being so jaded by the ubiquity of spectacularly good entertainment. That someone could just leap on the stage and do this thing, and you could go, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen that before!’ “



I don’t know that either niche marketing or a need for innovation supports the bold prediction that no one after Jackson will be able to appeal to a global audience.

Luciano Pavarotti, for example — whose estate was worth about a half billion dollars the last I read about it — appealed to millions of people all over the world, including people who knew nothing about opera, including people who did not want to know anything about opera, and he didn’t appeal to them because he was an innovator — certainly not in the sense that Michael Jackson was. Pavarotti’s performance was pretty much traditional. Whether he was, as a friend of mine claimed, “the second greatest tenor in history,” is a matter of conjecture — and conjecture, I might add, that has no real meaning. Most of those who bought Pavarotti’s recordings, attended his concerts, and watched his television appearances, wouldn’t know if he were second greatest or not. What they knew was that they liked him, and that was all that mattered. The implication of my friend’s remark was that Enrico Caruso was the greatest tenor in history, and Caruso and Pavarotti were alike in this: There was something about each of them that simply appealed to people, including those not normally in the opera crowd. The very fact that the something can’t be quantified, while both tenors’ enormous audiences and coincident earnings can be quantified, should tell us that it’s foolhardy to predict that no such performer will appear again.



Susan Boyle’s experience is also instructive. The record-setting video on YouTube featured Boyle, not Jackson. That doesn’t imply any parallel between the two as performers, and that’s exactly the point. Boyle’s appeal was unpredictable. No one saw it coming. And I dare say that even experts in the field, if they had heard Susan Boyle perform before her appearance on the British TV competition, would not have forseen her appeal, which has cut across all the usual borders of musical taste and which, it is important to note, has been a function of a new mode of almost universal communications whose implications and whose future we can’t even imagine. Jackson only got to scratch the surface of the rapidly evolving technology. Even if Susan Boyle  turns out to be a comet that will soon fade to black, we don’t know that there won’t be another Susan Boyle who will burst out into the world via YouTube or some unforseen successor to it and re-define the concept of a “star” in ways we haven’t dreamed of.


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