Steve Jobs, Michael Jackson, and the Sociology of Death

Essays, Featured — By on October 16, 2011 at 7:55 am

I can’t say for sure, but I think I had, like, three more tables to clean before I could leave work and get on with my Wednesday night when I looked up and saw HLN1 on the 9 inch television2 above the big round table in the back of the restaurant. I recognized the face on the screen immediately. Apparently Steve Jobs was dead. This was mildly shocking to me, although I suppose in retrospect it really shouldn’t have been considering that he had resigned his post as figurehead of Apple fairly abruptly and at a young age because of declining health due to pancreatic cancer. I had even heard him say, one time, that “his memories reach back longer than the road that stretches up ahead”. I think he was paraphrasing the Beatles, and looking back now, I suppose that his statement was absolutely true. I doubt Steve Jobs was very surprised to have died but I was pretty surprised that he was dead and so I dropped the filthy towel that I was using to “clean” booths with, and went and broke the news to our employees, most of whom I suspected would have no idea who Steve Jobs was. To my surprise every single person expressed dismay, and it was clear that they all knew of the man that had brought them their ipods, ipads, iphones, imacs, irealized. Within the hour everybody everywhere knew, and the twitosphere was full of amateur eulogizing (which, at its best can be sublime, at its worst, cringe-inducing) for the next day or so. But I didn’t see one statement made about the man that bordered on personal anecdote. The closest any of it came to such was along the lines of, “He really changed the way we live.”

But enough of that, let’s talk about Michael Jackson (or Kurt Cobain, or Elvis, or John Lennon…). I learned of the news of Jackson’s death from the very same 9 inch television during the very same activity (smearing cloudy water on vinyl cushioning)3. The primary difference in news coverage between the two events is, in retrospect, disturbingly obvious. Jobs’ death was covered by reporters in studio, who occasionally interviewed a co worker or business rival via satellite. Jackson’s death was covered by people holding microphones on the street, whose sole purpose was to seek out passersby and chronicle their reaction to the singer’s death. Inevitably Jackson was painted as an absolutely integral part of each person’s childhood (regardless of when they were born) and by extension the cornerstone of what it means to be alive, aware, and American. And all I could think the entire time was, “Where were you for the last 20 years?”.

But I never asked it aloud, because the answer was a little awkward to admit. These “fans” had been making fun of Michael Jackson, and watching poorly-written movies that made fun of Michael Jackson, and watching occasionally-trancendent Saturday night sketch comedy shows that made fun of Michael Jackson, and making tellingly-unfunny “Jacko” jokes around the water-cooler in between discussions of the Jackson trials. But upon his death their narrative of Jackson and his career and what he/it meant was entirely reinvented. This is curious, and to their (our?) credit, probably not without seeds of truth: Statistically speaking, a surprisingly high percentage of our households house a copy of Thriller. Most of us know (and love) the bass-line that opens “Billie Jean”. A select few of us even religiously perform karaoke versions of “The Man in the Mirror” at bars the world over. But no one was talking about that when they woke up on June 25, 20094. What they talked about, when they talked about Michael Jackson (if they talked about him at all), was what an odd cultural relic he had morphed into, and how regrettable or pathetic or disgusting that was to them. These conversations had basically ceased to take place by the time everyone went to bed on June 25, 2009. And this points to Michael Jackson’s legacy being more cultural construction than concrete fact of reality. Jackson’s death gave most of us an opportunity to be a part of something bigger than ourselves (life in America in the late twentieth century), something his art could never really achieve on it’s own, because art can only happen in the present while it is being experienced. Whereas a narrative, while told in the present, exists in the past and can be manipulated in any way that the teller so wishes.

Strangely, I didn’t see this happen when Steve Jobs died. I didn’t see a lot of folks talking about how Steve Jobs played a major role in their early life, or redefine what it meant for them to be an American. And I wondered why this was.

I rode my bike around town and gave the whole issue some thought and I remembered the time that one of the guys who I used to play pick up football with in High School died in his sleep. We were all very shocked and torn up and alarmed. And I remember sitting at the kid’s funeral and thinking about the two memories I had with the guy, one of which was playing football, and the other consisted of air drumming along to songs together at youth group. And I replayed these two memories over and over and mentioned them anytime his name came up5 over the next couple of weeks, and it made me feel a little good, if you want to know the truth. We were all in it together and something had happened to us. To all of us. Even me. And apparently a lot of other people were doing the same thing, because they kept writing things on the kid’s myspace, and in blog posts, and in lipstick on the back of their cars, and in the weeks following the funeral it became clear that the guy had had about 200 best friends. And I noticed that very few of people who were close to him participated in the posturing for position, for status by proximity. In the same vein, I usually don’t see recently widowed women posting facebook tributes to their former husbands. They simply don’t have to. We all already know.

There is no need for any of us to publicly redefine our life’s narrative with Steve Jobs, as we did with Michael Jackson because a) he literally redefined the way we live for us, and consequently b) nothing we would make up could possibly come close to the actual reality of the way he affected our lives. Nothing about the way people relate to media (music/news/books/movies), each other, or the way they present themselves to the world (via snapshots of their existence taken on iphones and displayed, with caption, for all to see) is the same as it was 20 years ago, and it never will be again. The primary difference between Jobs and Jackson is that Jackson was a metaphor, but we aren’t quite sure what for, and he will continue to make headlines until we figure it out. Jobs was concrete change to our daily existence. Jackson’s contributions are completely symbolic, and they are floating in space without referents. Jobs’ contributions are real and completely ubiquitous, and they are floating in millions of pockets next to keys and spare change. So who was more important to us? And is that a selfish question? I would argue that Jobs revolutionized the way we think about, experience, and consume Jackson’s medium, and is thus more influential6. Still, it is worth noting that Ed McMahon died the same day as Jackson, and he was a person who, unlike Jackson, actually was a part of most Americans’ everyday lives, and yet his death was completely overshadowed. Maybe it is telling that if I found myself in a room with Steve Jobs, I would want to look him in the eyes, shake his hand and tell him “thanks.”. If I found myself in a room with Michael Jackson I would try to stand near the door, keep my eyes on my shoes, and wonder what the two of us could possibly talk about.

1 CNN created this offshoot network a couple years ago, so that they would have an outlet to air all sorts of trash, 24 hours a day, without impeding their usual, respectable, broadcasting schedule.
2Why any commercial enterprise would spend money on a 9 inch TV is beyond me.
3Is it possible that I am killing these people with my cleaning? Does a person die every time I put towel to vinyl?
4There were almost certainly a few late risers who woke up to the news of Jacksons death that day.
5Which was a lot.
6But maybe we should be skeptical of buying any line of logic that would have the guy who invented the Nook superceding St. Paul in terms of importance.
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