Thanks especially to the obsessive ghoulishness of CNN, the American summer of 2009 will be remembered less for a debate on national healthcare than for the death of Michael Jackson, which has consumed the volume of television airtime befitting a presidential assassination. Cable networks would have you believe that their hyenas have picked the singer's bones clean solely because Jackson was such an internationally revered performer. And if you believe that, I've got a bridge in Brooklyn that's going cheap.
Consider this hypothetical scenario: a talented black child singer grows up to be a wildly successful pop star. In adulthood, he is still black (obviously, you would think). His face changes only to the degree that it ages a tad. He's heterosexual, and not associated with any scandals. Married twice, he has three children; unsurprisingly, they're black, too. He's wealthy, but invests his money wisely. At age 50, after a fallow period, he schedules an eagerly anticipated comeback tour. Alas, during rehearsals, he abruptly drops dead — of natural causes.
What a pity. He was good, and his tunes from the Eighties bring back memories for those of us who were boogying in clubs at the time. Nevertheless, how much airtime does Average Black Jacko's untimely demise merit? Is his memorial service on every channel and incessantly replayed for weeks? Months later, are we still devoting whole "news" programmes to his family, his doctors, his many perfectly normal friends?
Hardly. Average Black Jacko's death would command the respectful coverage of Robert McNamara's passing; at most, of Walter Cronkite's. The likes of Stevie Wonder, who appeared at Jackson's memorial service, cannot expect the same ceaseless foofaraw to surround his own death, though his music is arguably the more distinguished.
At the 2007 Edinburgh Television festival, I coined the term "hyper-narrative" to mean "a good story that isn't necessarily a big story. It's a story of nominal social importance that is played up disproportionately in the media because it satisfies what are essentially fictional appetites." Though he was then still alive, I identified Michael Jackson as a classic hyper-narrative: Jackson gave good story.
While networks have scrambled to designate the self-crowned King of Pop as "the greatest entertainer of all time," the superlative is dubious. Feigned hagiography justifies the real purpose of lavish coverage: rubbernecking a train wreck.