The King is Dead! Long Live the ... Who?

The media is so saturated with coverage of Michael Jackson’s death and retrospectives of his life that I’m reluctant to add to the noise. Plus the story has little to do with life and culture in Portland, the reflecting upon which is Culture Shock’s ostensible mission. Last night, I spent a lovely evening with past and present theater colleagues gossiping about the local art scene. Our conversation included great material for this blog, but the phrases, "cone of silence" and "off the record" were invoked so often that I'm afraid I'm speechless. Therefore, lacking any other ideas for a weekend post, here's what I'm thinking about this morning:

Many reports are drawing the inevitable comparisons between Michael Jackson and the other “king,” Elvis Presley who died in 1977 at age 42 (which now seems so remarkably young). Parallels can be spotted between both men’s incredible artistic achievements and the intriguing and/or bizarre nature of their personal lives and tragic circumstances of their passing. Then there’s Jackson’s brief marriage to Lisa Marie Presley that further cements the two together. (As a side note, Ms. Presley posted a heart-felt and revealing comment about her relationship with Mr. Jackson on her My Space page yesterday).

All this has me thinking, “What is it that elevates an artist from star to king?” Here’s a test that I think both the King of Rock & Roll and the King of Pop met.

You may be a King in popular culture if:

1. You have influenced popular music in profound ways, demonstrating a unique genius either in creating something new or in interpreting an existing form in such a way that the public’s perception of it shifts radically. For example, while I will quibble with Elvis fans who argue that he “invented” rock and roll, I agree that he thrust the music into the marketplace in a way that profoundly redefined popular culture. The same for Michael Jackson with R&B and pop music.

2. You are more than just a singer, but are a brilliant entertainer whose performances can be described as spectacles. More than filling an arena, you deliver a concert that is packed with charismatic showmanship worthy of the best of Las Vegas and PT Barnum.

3. Your influence extends beyond your songs and recordings to areas of popular culture such as fashion, movies and television.

4. The public has a deep fascination with your private life, and your private life also happens to be weird enough to deserve that kind of attention.

5. Your popularity and influences extend beyond racial/ethnic boundaries and can be found on every continent.

6. Your career is long enough to have an impact on more than one generation of fans.

7. News of your death spreads around the world at the highest speed possible given current technology. (Thanks to Twitter, news of Jackson’s death was near instantaneous).

8. News of your death warrants front page headlines – and I mean banner headlines, not just a front page article. Also, your death is considered legitimate “breaking news” worthy of interrupting Oprah. Also, your death is recognized with special television programming of an hour or more on the major networks on the same day it is announced.

I would argue that there are many stars who fit some of these categories, but only Presley and Jackson fit all of them. I’m open to argument and debate.

Here are questions for you to ponder and comment on:

1. Have I left any defining characteristics off my list?

2. Can you think of anyone else (past or present) who would qualify?

3. Do you see anyone on the horizon who might assume the mantle of “King” in the next decade?

UPDATE: Go visit me on my eponymous site, Mighty Toy Cannon, for a post about Mr. Jackson's moonwalking influences.

UPDATE: Bill Wyman (former arts editor for Salon, not the Rolling Stone) has some interesting posts about Michael Jackson on his blogsite, Hitsville, including one comparing Jackson and Presley titled, "The Lost Boys." He's also posted about the financial and legal clusterf*ck facing the Jackson estate, its creditors, and the vultures that have been pecking away for years.


GeorgeTaylor said...

The closest additional entry I can think of would be John Lennon. He wasn't a solo performer, but he personified the Beatles more than any of the others, including McCartney. Any fanciful thoughts of a reunion that diehards may have retained ended with that murder, locking the Beatles firmly in the amber of our memories. Of course, his death was instant front page news in part because of the dramatic way it came about.

Though I'm not prepared to make a case for Pavarotti, he came close, and it's nice to have another musical style represented in your list. I suspect there would have been a number of others from earlier generations, had popular culture held such sway then as it does now, and had the means of communication been as abundant, fast, and aggressive as today. What about Judy Garland? Is she too niche to qualify?

Defining characteristic #8 imposes the obligation that the candidate die in order to be crowned, which is interesting and should keep people from nominating themselves. If we accept that characteristic, do we eliminate those who may have achieved royal status but for the sad fact that they lived long, productive lives and died peacefully in their beds? Must our kings and queens be resolved to a youthful (relatively) or unexpected end?

MightyToyCannon said...

George, I had considered Mr. Lennon as well. He was certainly a genius artist and there's no debating the influence of the Beatles (speaking as someone who remembers watching their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show). I wouldn't put him in the "King" category for a couple of reasons. First, as you mention, I'm thinking of solo artists, and Lennon's solo career wasn't long enough (tragically), nor did it reach broadly enough to have the same impact as Presley or Jackson. By the time he was putting out solo albums, he was a niche artist (nothing wrong with that). His murder catapulted to worldwide attention because of its shock and violence. Had he quietly died from a chronic disease, by contrast, his death would certainly have been noticed and deeply grieved, but might not have reached banner headline status, methinks. Would Lennon be recognized as King if he quietly retreated into a comfortable old age with Yoko? I guess that depends on what he would have done next.

Finally, Lennon's live performance career was relatively short. What I would give to see the Beatles perform in a bar in Hamburg or Liverpool! Once they broke big, I imagine a Beatles concert was more about the screaming and fainting than the performance. Then, as as you know, the folded the live performance tent. (While I'm fantasizing, it would have been fun to have been on that rooftop while they performed tunes from "Let it Be"). Had Lennon lived, would he have mounted a series of comeback concerts? Or better yet, would Rick Rubin have produced a solo acoustic album of Lennon singing songs from Johnny Cash and ... let's say the Flaming Lips?

As for Ms. Garland, did she shape popular culture or reflect it? While beloved and revered, did she have a worldwide influence on styles, for example?

Being crowned King shouldn't require death to precede the honor. Elvis and Michael were named Kings before they went out. Is self-destructiveness a requirement? Hmmm.

How about Dylan? Influence and genius aplenty. He'll get an hour-long tribute special on the networks when he goes, along with front page headlines. Flowers, photos and stuffed animals will be placed in memorium. But King?

By the way, nobody reading my post and this comment should conclude that I'm just an old crank who thinks all these "new kids" don't rank. I don't think we're done with our need to find someone and crown them Pop King, I just can't point to anyone right now.

GeorgeTaylor said...

I don't disagree with you about Lennon, Ross (at least not substantially), merely stating that he's the closest in my living memory to your description. The term "king" (or "queen"), as you point out, suggests solo renown and brings up the question: can there be more than one king at a time? (The king is dead, long live the king.) I'm also letting personal bias creep in, I suppose. Though I acknowledge their impact and popularity, I was never an Elvis or Michael fan, but adored and admired the Beatles, especially John. But then, I'm not the sort of person who is generally called on to anoint kings and queens of popular culture.

Which brings up another issue: certainly critical regard is a defining characteristic, but there is also that rabid fan attraction that marks all kings, and many "lesser lights" as well. There are surely some demographics at play here, which may suggest, for instance, that there may never be a "queen" to compare with the kings we're talking about here. (Sidebar: Yes, Beatles concerts may have been more about the screaming than the music, but such was also the case with Elvis and Michael. And isn't that kind of electricity part of the royal regalia? Just asking.)

Here's another interesting point to consider: Both Elvis and Michael wore tarnished crowns late in their careers. That is, they fell out of favor and became sad, bad jokes, or at best parodies of themselves. Elvis in fact reinvented himself as such -- I'm thinking of the satin jump suits and the Las Vegas lounge act, so far removed from the sexy country boy image that brought him his initial fame. To be sure, they still retained their royal bloodlines (to overuse the metaphor), which became most evident once they had departed the throne -- perhaps because they both left a vacuum?

To me, perhaps the most interesting question has to do with the power they retained over their survivors -- by which I mean their fans. The feeling of personal loss for a person who did not share their lives in any substantive way, and who had been out of the spotlight for a significant length of time. I feel such loss for personal friends and relatives, whose death leaves a palpable gap in my life, but it's odd to me to see the very great, personal grief people feel for the loss of a pop culture icon. It seems to go much deeper than a general sorrow for a life snuffed out too young or regret for the art the person can no longer provide. I wonder if that's demographic as well? Does it have to do, for instance, with the generation of the star in relation to the generation of the fan base? Whatever the cause, certainly the ability to make a stong, long-lasting personal connection -- more than stage presence, more than garden-variety charisma -- must be one of the defining characterics.

Finally, I mentioned in my earlier post that there were undoubtedly kings of earlier generations and styles of music. We went to CMNW last night, so my thoughts turned to the classical field. Beethoven was a giant in his day, perhaps a self-appointed king, but I'm not sure about the rabid following. So I thought instead of Franz Liszt. A composer, yes, though not in the same league as Beethoven, but, my, what a showman! Glamorous, handsome, dramatic, flamboyant. And in that sense, he influenced generations of composer-performers to come. I suspect he was more famous for his concerts than for his music. Haven't done the research to check against the other characteristics, but I suspect he'd come out with a crown.

MightyToyCannon said...

George, you raise several thought-provoking points in your follow-up comment--just the kind of conversation I was hoping to generate. (Others, please weigh in too).

First, I think the issue of fan adulation (or "rabid fan attraction" as you call it) is key. That's what got me thinking about the "king" issue: Who has enough clout in popular culture to engender true grieving on an international scale? Moreover, who can do that even if their power has faded? What keeps some people from being defined as "has-beens," even though they may not have produced anything new and worthwhile recently?

The "electricity" created in performance is certainly essential, though I'll bet there was plenty of that at the Jonas Bros. concert last night. Perhaps the other appropriate term is "mania." Who has the power to cause multitudes of fans to scream, faint, shout and swoon, and then eventually beat their chests and rend their clothes in sorrow? I agree that the sense of personal loss felt by fans is a defining characteristic. (John Lennon shared that one). I think it is a generational thing, tied most directly to one's memories of youth. When a revered pop star dies, a little nostalgia kicks in and we remember times of yore, perhaps more fondly than is warranted. So, we mourn the loss of our own youth along with the loss of the king.

As for the "tarnished crowns," it would have been fascinating to see how MJ's comeback concerts in London turned out. Would they have been a demonstration of his power, or a sad spectacle? Elvis may have turned into parody material, but he still had the chops (and I don't mean just karate chops).

I welcome your thoughts about past potential "kings," stretching back to Beethoven or Liszt. I don't know enough about their standing in popularity and in the imagination of their publics to comment. I do suspect that the pop King (or Queen) phenomenom is linked to the availability of mass communication--i.e., something not really made possible until radio and television.

Finally (!), one associate suggested that Madonna might fit the criteria I suggested. I'll have to think that one through. On the surface, she doesn't quite seem right, but maybe that's because I'm bored with her.

Unknown said...

I'm going have to add Madonna to this list. She fits all of the criteria that don't involve death. Long live Madge!

I would also add that she was a master of manipulating mass media; even more than Michael Jackson. MJ often played the victim and felt like he was the unfortunate target of a vicious media. Madonna always makes us feel like she's running the show and loving every minute of it.

MightyToyCannon said...

By the criteria I posted, I'm having a hard time excluding Madonna from royalty. Her cultural influence was huge, and she was (or is) a mighty entertainer. Still, I'm resisting this one. Perhaps the test is in the mourning. Will it feel like a personal loss to fans?