It was 1989 and I proudly declared, as most of the rest of my kindergarten class did, that my favorite musician was Michael Jackson. I don't know that I could have named, hummed, or recognized a single one of his songs.
In the ensuing years I remedied that travesty but in a manner that has come to represent much of what my generation (that half generation of lost misfits between generation x and the iGeneration) does - ironic (and then post-ironic) false nostalgia. We are nostalgic for things we couldn't have fully appreciated - Thriller is older than I am. Fuck, we are nostalgic for things we couldn't have experienced - Studio 54, Woodstock, Ken Kesey's bus, the Left Bank in the 30s, whatever. We have come to love the music, the moments, the atmosphere, the culture, the styles in a "you had to be there" kind of way, even though we weren't. I blame the media.
Not the media in the sense of Mainstream Media, Network News, CNN, and FOX, but media in the sense of the Internet, cell phones, ipods, Facebook, Twitter, and the like. Media in the McLuhan sense. And I'm not saying it's a bad thing or that we should go back to the "good old days" or that my son's generation is doomed to being somehow less than those that lived before television. I am not a Luddite and have no desire to give up my media, my laptop, my smart phone, my interwebs. What would the world be like without Wikipedia?
But that is the thing. We are mourning (or pretending to mourn because we all feel like we should even if we don't feel sad) and remembering (pretending to remember because the memories aren't really there and neither were we) Michael Jackson in a way that was impossible just last year. Google, Twitter, et al. are crashing and experiencing major delays as the world tries to establish its reality and its loss. Elvis didn't have this problem.
Which I think is my main issue. We can never feel about anyone the way that our parents/grandparents felt about Elvis. We as a whole, and as a society. Some people will be more affected by the death of Michael Jackson, but society won't be. Because there are so many niches now, so many possibilities. During Elvis' day, he was one of very few options. Especially in small towns that didn't have record stores let alone ipods. And that lack of mediation let (forced?) people feel more deeply. It wasn't that they felt more but that that they had less to care about, fewer options. And so they cared about what they had all the more. This has been the cornerstone of the anti-internet, anti-user-generated media firestorm.
But we are struck by the opposite. We have so many options, so many possibilities, that every choice is both deeply personal and inherently superficial. You can fill your ipod with Elvis or Michael Jackson or Nirvana or the White Stripes (or you could pick talentless hacks and fill your ipod with them) or all of them in cleverly constructed playlists that speak to every possible mood and moment. And for the younger generations, as every artist past and present just becomes another manifestation of their mood, their current status, the artist becomes less and less important as a person, as a cultural figure. Michael Jackson will be missed. Terribly. But he is the probably one of the last to be missed in such a public fashion. He is likely the last of the idols capable of making such a impact with his passing; having been able to make such an impact with his life and work. And even he will not have the impact that Elvis did. Sure his latter day indiscretions will be similarly glossed over by the enormity of his life and back catalog. But despite Michael crashing Twitter and making Google think they were undergoing a cyber attack, there are just too many options left for us to choose from. Today we choose to mourn. But soon enough we will choose a different status message and move on to the next new thing. Our ability as a culture, as a society, to idolize has diminished. There will still be idols. And tweens will still scream themselves hoarse over every new plastic act, but little else. There will still be major figures in music, but the ability to transcend genre, to reach out to the world, to be King, that is lost to us forever.
We can remember how Michael and his music affected our lives but for most of us it will soon devolve into a nostalgia for shows we never saw, feelings we wished we had felt, and moments that belonged to someone else and no amount of "Bad" ringtones or trying to remember the steps to "Thriller" will change that.