What's the right way to respond to #MichaelJackson's death?

by Stephen Tall on June 26, 2009

Why is it okay to laugh at the death of celebrities? Genuine question. As news of Michael Jackson’s death swept the world last night, causing the Internet to grind to a standstill, two things about our new cyber-age stood out to me.

First, that it was a US celeb website, TMZ.com, which broke the news of Jacko’s demise, leaving traditional media, including the wire agencies and LA Times, in its reporting wake. Its maintained the frenetic and frequently intrusive coverage today. If you want to see pics of the paramedics arriving at Jacko’s house, or of his grief-stricken relatives at UCLA hospital, or if you want to see the body bag arriving at the coroner’s – it’s all there for your voyeuristic viewing pleasure.

Gorge away, you know you want to, just as you know you’d slow down when passing a road accident. Never mind that it’s de-humanising: celebrities are public property, we pay their wages, dammit we own them! Even and especially in death.

Secondly, the worldwide phenomenon that is Twitter – so visible a couple of weeks ago with its uncensored spread of #iranelection news – once again proved we now live in a wireless global village, with top-trending Tweet hashtags including #MichaelJackson or simply #mj. This wildfire dissemination has revealed the variety of reactions to his death, with Tweets ranging from grieving to amazed to bored to flippant.

Within just a couple of hours of Michael Jackson’s death becoming general knowledge yesterday, Liberal Conspiracy was already collating the funniest messages, a mix of LOLarious, tasteless and black humour (no puns, please, this is a serious post). Of course this simply mirrors and amplifies in public what once would have happened in the relative privacy of pubs up and down the country.

The fact that society does not have a unified response to the complex range of emotions that the sudden demise of an emo popster like Jacko provokes should come as no surprise. It is one of the built-in double-standardds of news reporting of slebs’ deaths that only the respectful can be broadcast, a principle which was over-extended to snapping point in the mad week following Princess Diana’s death – the perils of breaching this unwritten code can be seen in the virulent backlash to trash gossip website Perez Hilton’s inaccurate suggestion last night that Jacko’s cardiac arrest was a low-rent publicity stunt.

Yet is such hypocrisy such a Bad Thing when reporting death, even and including a celebrity’s death? It doesn’t matter what you thought of Michael Jackson – whether you believe he was the King of Pop or a troubled child-man – he leaves behind him three kids, two ex-wives and family and friends, and they will all be grappling with universal emotions today: grief, guilt, bewilderment, emptiness, regret. Most of us have the opportunity to wrestle with such feelings in privacy, to isolate ourselves from the outside, and come to terms with it all in our own space, in our own time.

There is a time for the public sphere, for promenading as individuals or as a community; but the existence of and need for the public sphere also shows the importance of the private sphere. And never more so than in times of death.

My closing thought is no more than this: any death is a sad event for those involved, so why can’t we just let them get on with their grieving and their lives in peace? Sure, let the jokes be told and Tweeted if that’s you’re thing – it is, after all, your democratic right – but why not at least save it for the pub.


Tend to agree. He has three kids. He was arguably the most successful pop artist of all time, but ultimately had a tragic life going back to issues with his father. But then again, black humour about stars’ deaths is not new.

by Paul on June 26, 2009 at 11:37 am. Reply #

“Twitter used by look-at-me Morons” shock.

by Andy GL on June 26, 2009 at 11:42 am. Reply #

Emotional responses get people looking at commercial content. Death sells, and in a world driven by corporate media, that’s all that counts. And of course, everybody has to be the first one to tell you.

It’s sad and annoying, but you’re looking at a symptom rather than the problem.

by Andrew Suffield on June 26, 2009 at 12:02 pm. Reply #

Quite right.

Oh, and thanks for posting the link to the page of sick jokes …

by Herbert Brown on June 26, 2009 at 12:18 pm. Reply #

If a celebrity sets themselves up as something special they must expect their lives and deaths to be pored over. The fact that people are still arguing over the deaths of individuals as diverse as Napoleon, King Harold and Prince Charles’s first wife shows that this whole business is not new in any way. We all like a good story, an even better rumour and – best of all – the attention shifted away from us to some other poor soul.

There’s nothing new or wrong in the response to Michael Jackson’s death. It is simply the world he lived in.

The best thing I have seen is the Independent article setting out the first of what will doubtless be countless conspiracy thoeries within hours of his death. Here we go again…

by wit and wisdom on June 26, 2009 at 1:00 pm. Reply #

Michael Jackson`s life and death has been compared to the mix of life force and human angst of Marilyn Monroe,Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra.

All being legionary icons in music and film and all haunted by a set of janus faced demons that tormented them when off screen and alone and away from their talent and genius.

Michael Jackson`s super stardom from the age of 5 years, deprived him of childhood and many believe he spent the rest of his life attempting to compensate and catch-up with it.

He clearly competed with many potent emotional identities,including how to move childhood into manhood,how to reconcile pop idol with off stage family man and how to make a come back.

Michael Jackson seemed to fight the most important battle with himself and and was reported to be taking `pain-killers’ for a terrible back pain.He was clearly stretched to the absolute capacity of his health and vitality with his fan base, not least in his pledge to them in the UK.

The early demise of Michael Jackson,a pop legend,as the world still cherished to see him perform again at the London O2 Concerts is now leaves an unrequited crushed dream, for his legions of adoring music lovers.

However,there is a lasting soul and legacy,that will belong to Michael Jackson and continue to scale the heights of music and dance for an eternity.

I liked the rendition of `Thriller’ that the cast of `EastEnders’ did on BBC `s `Children in Need’.

My thoughts are with Michael Jackson`s surviving three children.

by Cllr Patrick Smith on June 26, 2009 at 4:29 pm. Reply #

> First, that it was a US celeb website, TMZ.com, which broke the news of Jacko’s demise

To be more accurate, TMZ.com was the one that first took a flier with an unconfirmed rumour while proper news outlets actually checked to see if it was true. It’s notable that the first broadcaster over here to take the chance on reporting him dead was Sky “we can reveal the result of the Labour deputy leadership contest” News.

by Andy on June 26, 2009 at 4:59 pm. Reply #

He was an iconic figure.
His genius transformed our lives.
Nothing will ever be the same again.

Yes, we will all remember exactly where we were when we heard Chris Rennard had resigned.

by Ruth Bright on June 26, 2009 at 10:32 pm. Reply #

why can’t we just let them get on with their grieving and their lives in peace?

What, you mean instead of going on about it on EVERY FRIGGING NEWS PROGRAMME and website and radio station and everything? YES PLEASE. Why is this even here? FFS.

by Jennie on June 27, 2009 at 11:23 am. Reply #

“Goodbye Mikey J
dum dumd dum
de de de
and it seemed to me that you lived your life
like a candle in the wind”

I leave it to others to fill in the rest….

by cogload on June 27, 2009 at 12:24 pm. Reply #

Michael Jackson is my favorite pop artist ever since i was a child. He is truly the King of Pop and i am saddened by this news.

by arthritistreatment-boy77 on June 29, 2009 at 8:12 am. Reply #

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