The Arc of Celebrity in the Post-modern Digital Age

The recent deaths of Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, and Billy Mays created the usual hyper-slop of television coverage. It was coupled with the new reverberating social media echo chamber that reached a deafening cacophony of inanity. Some are calling it the Jackson effect. Twitter tracked 100K tweets per hour at its peak. Google mistook the onslought of Jackson searches and web traffic as a DDoS attack. The icon-loving mass-media mob culminated in a Lottery for tickets to Jackson's funeral. (If you don't understand why The Lottery is ironically spooky read a little Shirley Jackson re: public stonings.) This is the first of 100’s of celebrity icon deaths that the hyperventilating media will bury us in.   

Is the media coverage driven by the fact that Jackson was an instrumental force in people's lives? An outsider to our culture looking on would assume that Jacko was a god, or a deified hero. In reality, Michael Jackson was a terrific musician and dancer, who reached the pinnacle of his career almost 30 years ago. He was a man who seemed to struggle with identity in public; a man who's quirks bordered on shocking; a man with an unseemly fetish for youth and young people. No this man was no statesman, no god, no oracle.

Here is the root cause of the media feeding frenzy in my estimation: He was a man who lived nearly his entire life in public.

The private became public - the line between the two blurred by analogue and now digital media. By 1960, 90% of Americans had televisions. The saturation of the internet into family homes took less than 15 years. One of the by-products of the entrenched mass media into our culture is a new Iconic Celebrity status. “Always On” broadcasting and the speeding up of communication velocity and frequency over the last 50 years brings people into our lives who would never have been there previously (think 1910).

The medium is the message. 

The impact of living in a real life Truman Show is more powerful than the actual outputs of the artist. We ignore that he was an “alleged” a child predator. Pick a foible, we ignore it. The "we of society" love him because he is familiar. We love him because he is an icon in our mental maps. We love him because his public living for 43+ years runs parallel to our own personal history. We love him because we've seen him, we “know” him.

The electronic mass media creates 1000’s of iconic celebrities in our culture, transforming them into guideposts for how we see the world, meter our history, and relate to our own lives. First kiss songs, random movie lines, “didja see that Seinfeld where …”. Celebrity icons act as comfortable fixed points of reference that anchor the unpredictability of living. It is a by product of what Marshall McLuhan called hot and cold communication mediums.

Communication mediums alter and shape cognitive organization.

The icon of “Michael Jackson” is interchangeable with 1,000's of other celebrity icons already rooted into our mental maps. We see celebrity icons created, ascend, peak, and decline – sometimes all in a week. Now that mass media is over 50 years old, we will witness the final denouements of more Celebrity Icons as their lives come to an end, natural and unnatural. The Jackson Effect is not over, it is only just beginning and accelerating.