July 8, 2009 / 2:45 PM / 10 years ago

Can there be another Michael Jackson icon in Internet era?

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The extravagant mourning for Michael Jackson has some critics wondering whether the pop singer’s global superstardom could ever be duplicated in an Internet era offering endless entertainment choices.

Actress Brooke Shields speaks at a memorial service for Michael Jackson at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California, July 7, 2009. Mariah Carey, Stevie Wonder and Usher led an emotional public memorial for Michael Jackson on Tuesday as the music world, the Jackson family and thousands of fans bade farewell to the "King of Pop." REUTERS/Gabriel Bouys/Pool

Jackson’s sudden June 25 death caused an outpouring of praise for the singer, whose 1982 “Thriller” album is the best-selling of all time with estimated sales of 50 million copies. In death, Jackson’s personal scandals no longer seemed so important to his fans and those caught up in the moment.

“In the world of YouTube, no one could occupy the worldwide effect of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller,’” said Jonathan Taplin, a University of Southern California professor.

“I was scouting a movie for Walt Disney in 1983 in Congo, Gabon and Ivory Coast. All you heard on the radio was Michael Jackson,” said Taplin, a former television and film producer.

The Internet has joined the world together in new ways and can elevate unknowns to stardom in an instant, as illustrated by Susan Boyle, the dowdy British singer who shot from obscurity to international fame when her performance on a British talent show was posted on YouTube.

But such fame is fleeting and one Internet sensation is quickly replaced by another. “There will be thousands of Susan Boyles, but no Michael Jacksons or The Beatles,” Taplin said.

Before the emergence of cable TV and then the Internet, tens of millions of people regularly tuned into the same hit shows at the same time. Now, the Internet has flooded the world with choice and diluted audiences.

Dubbed the “King of Pop,” Jackson, 50, sang with his brothers in the “Jackson 5” before achieving solo stardom with hits like “Billie Jean” and “Beat It,” which he promoted with boundary breaking videos on cable music video network MTV.


But MTV no longer plays hours of prime time music videos and the Internet allows anyone to post songs and videos online. The New York Times’s David Segal wrote that this probably spelled the end of fame on the level achieved by Jackson.

“That’s why even Michael Jackson would have a hard time becoming Michael Jackson these days,” he wrote. “There is something sad about our infinite menu of options. It could very well mean the end of true superstardom.”

Jackson won 13 Grammy Awards and during his lifetime sold an estimated 750 million albums.

But although he was poised to attempt a comeback, his best years appeared far behind him when he died. In recent years, he won more headlines for his bizarre behavior and in fighting off sexual abuse charges than for his music.

Susan Ohmer, who teaches modern communication at the University of Notre Dame, likened Jackson’s fame to that of Britain’s Princess Diana, saying that while people may not have known the real Jackson or Diana, the personas they portrayed on camera captured the world’s attention.

“Michael Jackson came of age when music was becoming more international,” Ohmer said “Like Princess Diana, his style and movements seemed to come alive on camera.”

Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University, said it would be more difficult for another global icon to be created in a “fragmented era of modern technology,” — but still possible.

“The Internet has allowed a new route to fame,” Thompson said. “But becoming truly famous is still something that happens very rarely.”

Thompson and Ohmer both pointed to U.S. President Barack Obama as one of the world’s new icons, but based on a record of political achievement and real intellectual power rather than songs and dance moves.

“In any new medium, stars emerge,” Ohmer said. “Celebrities become global icons because they interact with media in ways that fascinate the public and because they speak to us in some way about our lives and times.”

Editing by Mark Egan and Alan Elsner

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