The legacy of MJ is now being decided


The legacy of MJ is now being decided
The myths about Michael Jackson will long outlast the reality, says writer Reed Johnson of the Los Angeles Times.
ON 16 AUG, 1977, the day Elvis Presley died, folklorist William R Ferris remembers that in Memphis, ‘it was like the ground began to shake’.
09 July 2009

ON 16 AUG, 1977, the day Elvis Presley died, folklorist William R Ferris remembers that in Memphis, ‘it was like the ground began to shake’.

Within hours, hundreds of pilgrims had descended on Graceland, and the process by which a beloved public personage is transformed into a mythic figure was under way.

But which Elvis would be mythologised, and whose legacy would be preserved?

The youthful rock rebel or the Las Vegas glitter god? The sultry crooner who gyrated his way into a nation’s (and eventually the world’s) consciousness or the sadly diminished man who rasped his way through his final hit single?

The struggle over who gets to control a pop cultural or historical figure’s legacy and shape the predominant image is a shifting, elaborate progression involving the family and friends of the deceased, public-relations managers, fans, journalists and, today, legions of bloggers.

Over time, it also may be influenced by museum directors, filmmakers, scholars, biographers, publishers, copyright lawyers and politicians.

In the case of figures as influential and multifaceted as Presley and Michael Jackson, this ultimately is a process that can’t be controlled or stage-managed by any single person or interest, said Mr Ferris, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and senior associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Jackson was (memorialised) at a public service at Staples Center, but the testimonials, combined with the millions of words already written, spoken and blogged on Jackson’s behalf, constitute merely the prologue to a cultural dialogue that probably will last for decades, if not generations.

‘The power of a charismatic person like Elvis Presley or Martin Luther King or Michael Jackson is a kind of force unto itself,’ Mr Ferris said.

‘It’s a folkloric process by which people remember and talk about and sing about a mythic figure, and they become greater than life.

‘In the case of Michael Jackson, it’s already happening, and it will sweep aside the coroner’s report and the factual data concerning Michael Jackson’s death in favour of making a myth.’

Myth gathering

The methods by which we construct our mythic narratives obviously have changed, said Mr Michael Marsden, dean of St Norbert College and past president of the American Culture Association.

Gradually, the oral tradition of myth-making gave way to pulp fiction, which in turn has been eclipsed by viral technologies.

Instead of gathering around the hearth or the campfire to recount the exploits of (the famous or infamous), we now turn to Twitter.

‘One of the issues with these larger-than-life figures is that they’re enigmatic,’ Mr Marsden said. ‘The reason that they continue to have this life force is that they’re enigmatic and so each generation can continue to reinvent them.’

For decades, army general George Custer was celebrated as a hero after he and his 7th Cavalry troops were massacred at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana Territory. Then, in the 1960s and ’70s, revisionist historians and filmmakers, influenced by critiques of Gen Custer by American Indians and drawing on parallels between the US army’s 19th-century Western campaigns and the Vietnam War, began to recast him as a genocidal lunatic.

Musician and songwriter John Lennon was once reviled by some conservative Christian Americans for saying the Beatles were bigger than Jesus Christ. Now there’s a memorial to him in New York’s Central Park.

Monroe in her day was largely viewed as cinematic eye candy. She since has been reappraised as a serious actor who yearned for more substantial parts and to be more than simply an appendage to famous men like baseball great Joe DiMaggio and playwright Arthur Miller.

In today’s legalistic, market-driven Hollywood entertainment world, preserving a deceased star’s legacy is directly related to maintaining control over the rights to that star’s image and likeness, and to releasing only those posthumous recordings or other materials that will enhance, rather than detract from, the star’s lifetime body of work.

Those legacy-making mechanisms have grown considerably more sophisticated, and the potential posthumous financial stakes have increased since Presley’s death.

Mr Jerry Schilling, former creative affairs director for Elvis Presley Enterprises, said: ‘There are a lot of creative potential projects given the size of Michael Jackson’s body of work that could go on forever if it is done properly and with the right people,’ Mr Schilling said.

‘It’s not a whole lot of different than if you’re managing an artist who’s alive.’


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One Response to “The legacy of MJ is now being decided”

  1. Maria Maloney Says:

    Child abuse campaigner Stuart Syvret arrested while Michael Jackson is glorified!

    We’re outraged that Senator Stuart Syvret has been arrested in Jersey. Stuart is a brave campaigner fighting for the justice of Jersey child abuse victims. This in a week when child abuser Michael Jackson is being glorified. If we want to protect our children this is the news that we should all be outraged by.

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