Thursday, July 9, 2009

MJ And Popular Culture

Now that the funeral is over I would like to make a few comments on the death of Michael Jackson. Some aspects of the whole business illustrate some interesting trends in popular culture. The first is what I call the exaggeration of emotion. Both here in Singapore and in reports in the foreign media I read expressions like ‘I am devastated’ ‘The whole world is in mourning’ ‘My family and I am in a state of shock’. Really? When I was in the Medical Corps in the army in the late 60’s I sometimes saw severely wounded soldiers evacuated from Vietnam, some of them in shock. Believe me, no one ‘is in a state of shock’ over the death of MJ. And the whole world mourning? I wouldn’t mind betting that a couple of hundred millions peasants in India have never he heard of MJ and even those who have are far more concerned about the fact that the monsoon is late. I suspect that hundreds of millions of poor villagers in South America, China and Africa have hardly given MJ’s death a second thought either, even if they have heard about it. Devastated? Now I saw devastated people on a recent news report of a bomb going off in an Iraqi market. None of the numerous reports I saw about MJ’s showed ‘devastated’ people. The problem with using absurdly exaggerated terminology to describe ordinary experiences, in this case a little bit of sadness, is that when something really shocking or devastating happens we don’t have adequate words to convey its true seriousness or impact. It diminishes it. This misuse of language also encourages people to ‘over-express’ themselves about what are actually rather commonplace events. Sobbing, huddling in weeping groups arms over each others’ shoulders, and gasping ‘Oh my God!’ over the passing of someone you have never met or even seen at a distance on stage, is completely inappropriate. It leaves you with nothing to do when some you are personally are struck by real tragedy.

Did you also notice that during the memorial concert and in the thousands of cards people wrote and left at the hall where it was preformed, that MJ was constantly addressed as if he were present. ‘We love you’, ‘We will always remember you’, ‘You enriched our lives’, instead of ‘We loved him’, We will always remember him’, etc. I find this sort of thing, very common in funerals nowadays, rather weird. And this is not just a matter of the proper use of language. It grows out of and reinforces a sort of pseudo-mysticism in which a vague sentimentality replaces more thoughtful idea about death and the after-life.

Another interesting thing about MJ’s passing is how quickly the recent deep concern and even disgust about aspects of his private life has been elbowed aside by an avalanche of accolades, A genuine and meaningful eulogy to him would include mention of his very real talents in some areas, his great generosity, but also the fact that he apparently made a mess of his life. On several occasions I read of or heard people say things like ‘His message will live forever’, as if he was some great prophet or spiritual teacher. I must say, I find this sort of thing to be the height of vulgarity. It also obscures an extremely important point. If MJ’s life conveys any ‘message’ it would have to be that talent, celebrity and unimaginable wealth do not guarantee happiness. The Buddha said, ‘Truly dire are gains, honor and fame. They are serious and difficult obstacle in the way of attaining true safety’ (S.II,226)


Jamie G. said...

As usual, your words are amazingly insightful and wondrously incredible. I'm sure your blog will live on forever benefiting generations to come.

The man. The memory. Bhante Dhammika.

Joking aside, you are so right. It's amazing how wonderful someone becomes when they are dead. It's as if, in a sick way, the world wanted him dead so they could idolize him more, in much the way Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Buddy Holly, and even Elvis have been idolized.

As far as the media coverage... ENOUGH IS ENOUGH! Can I see some actual real news now, please?

Paperman said...

Front page headlines sell newspapers/attract readers.

To do that, they must:

1. Report the rare/unexpected.

2. Spin and sensationalize.

3. Stir the emotive and dull the rational.

I believe this has always been part of human communication. It's just modern tech. and literacy that's amplifying the effect.

I'm just starting to study buddhist scriptures and chanced upon this engaging blog.

If I'm interpreting correctly, pt. 3 is the exact opposite of what the Dhamma is teaching.

Just a note from a passerby, Bhante Dhammika.

ah-ha said...

All profit-motivated media must spin & sensationalise. Sanitised reports don't stimulate $en$e$. Superlatives and spectacularism are necessary for heightening feelings & emotions. "Glorious Deaths", "Glory to the Dead" - I can't understand why there is glory when you are dead? Back to human nature again, the need or the desire?
Poor MJ, in death as in life he was subjected to much abuse and amuse.

David said...

Thank you. I have said the same privately, and, in response, looked at by some as if I had an onion growing out of my head.

The best quip I heard about the situation was by a political commentator who stated that the error made by a certain US senator recently, was not that he had announced that he had been engaged in an extra-marital affair- but that he chose to disclose it "one day too early" (i.e. the day before MJ's death).

Instead of the hyperbole about MJ, this should have been a teaching moment about the truths of life as you point out: life is "suffering," "change and impermanence is constant," and no one is immune. Indeed, compared to the circumstances under which the overwhelming majority of the world lives, your description of the overblown mourning as "vulgar" is an understatement.

taisen said...

Thank you for the antidote - good medicine!

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Taisen,
When 'Boy' starts clapping, see if you can get him to do it with one hand.

taisen said...

Heh, thanks Ven Dhammika... Don't know about clapping with one hand but in other ways he's a great teacher! However, he's the enemy of regular meditation at home :-)

kaiserchiefsqueen said...
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Perry said...

I think a certain degree of guilt is a big reason for the reaction to Michael Jackson's death.

Here was a man who had been nothing more than a running joke in the tabloids for the best part of fifteen years. Now that he has died at a sadly young age of a rather undignified and avoidable death, the media and the public in general feel indirectly responsible for his prescription drug problems that caused him to die.

Of course I'm saying this as someone who was too young to remember the reactions to the deaths of John F. Kennedy, Elvis Presley and John Lennon (among others), and I only vaguely remember the death of Princess Diana, so cannot really compare them completely.

mettacats said...

In an attempt to cosole a lady in her 70s who was lamenting of her inability to walk and her closeness to death, I mentioned that even MJ died. Hmm..that was how useful MJ has been :)

Talljoanne said...

Very elegantly-put. I disagree with hyperbole, precisely because, as you put it, "it leaves you with nothing to do when [we] are personally are struck by real tragedy".

Anna said...
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Ana said...

I am interested in Buddhism and so this article captured my attention. I was also devastated by MJ’s death and let me explain why.

I was not a fan of MJ but for me it was very interesting why he was so charismatic and why people love him so much. I made an extensive, thorough research and found out that in reality he was very pure and innocent person. Beyond his talent he was very kind, generous, humble, loving, compassionate, helping. He loved animals and children because he could see purity and innocence in them. He had been helping a lot of children on a regular basis, including terminally ill children by giving them joy in his ranch, Neverland, where he created an amusement park. He visited ill children in hospitals. He donated hundreds of millions dollars to different charities. And he did much more than that, but he tried not to advertise this, so you know about MJ as a true humanitarian almost only through research. He wrote many thoughtful songs about peace, starving children, human cruelty, saving our world etc. His message was very broad: love, peace, no violence, “If you wanna make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and then make a change”, making world better by giving children our love and consequently raising more kind generation etc. He gave all this by using his innate talent, through his music and songs, he said, people may not read books, but they listen to music.

As I understand in Buddhism (I am just a beginner, sorry if I am mistaken) it is very important to develop certain good qualities in yourself (compassion, love for others, patience, peacefulness, helpfulness etc.) and get rid of bad qualities (anger, violence, revenge etc.). Some people gifted by good qualities, born with them, they almost do not have bad ones. We can say, for the purposes of discussion, that person is pure. Compassion and love is natural for that person and the concept of revenge and violence is alien for him/her. I consider MJ as the one of the highest demonstration of this purity. I think people feel this in him and pay respect. People love him for all this. It is like loving a respected teacher. For those who can distinguish his purity from endless media lies - he is a respected teacher. That’s why they are devastated by his death.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Ana,
Thanks for your thoughtful comments. And I hope you soon recover from your grief.