Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Sunny Slopes of Long Ago

When I went to church this morning, I must admit that I expected my pastor to speak about the famous people who died this week — Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson.

I wasn't sure what he was going to say, but I pondered the prospect as I drove to church. Would he speak of the uncertainty of life? He could have — and it certainly would have been poignant today, given the fact that, upon returning home, I learned that another famous person, TV pitchman Billy Mays, was found dead at his Florida home this morning. Mays wasn't as well known as the other three, but millions were familiar with his booming voice from his infomercials.

As with Jackson, Mays (who also was 50) did not appear to be a victim of foul play, but there are reports that he was hit on the head when the airplane in which he was riding had a rough landing yesterday. He seemed to be all right when he disembarked, but, reportedly, he told his wife he wasn't feeling well before he went to bed, which seems reminiscent of the death of Natasha Richardson a little more than three months ago. An autopsy is scheduled for tomorrow.

Would my pastor speak about the mysterious ways of God? That, too, would have been appropriate. And, in a way, I guess that is what he spoke about. He reminded the congregation — which seemed smaller than usual but had to be considered hardy, given the 100°–plus temperatures we've had in Dallas lately — of John Lennon's words: "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."

(Which reminds me. I must add that one to my favorite quotations on Facebook.

(Incidentally, I'm not sure when Lennon said that first — I don't even know if he was the first one to say it — but I know it was a line from the song "Beautiful Boy" that was on the last album Lennon released before he was murdered.)

My pastor calls these "holy interruptions." And I guess that is appropriate, when you realize that Jackson was preparing for 50 shows in England when he died.

Personally, I've been thinking a lot about the nature of fame after reading David Segal's musings on the subject in the New York Times.

Segal wrote that, while watching the TV coverage of the reactions to Jackson's death, "you had to wonder: When will this happen again? When will another pop culture figure mean so much to so many that people are moved to assemble, hug and dance?"

Segal seems inclined to believe that, because things have changed so dramatically since Jackson's record–smashing LP "Thriller" was released a quarter of a century ago, it might never happen again.

And his point is well taken. "People who buy music tend these days to buy — or steal it — online, a song at time," he writes. They don't seem to be buying albums, even though I suspect there are still some people (like myself) who prefer CDs — and I expect that segment of the marketplace to be around for awhile.

But, even if music consumers are acquiring their recordings online one at a time instead of investing in an entire CD's worth of material, that is, as he concedes, more a matter of "business and math" than it is a reflection on the fame and influence of the performer.

And, frankly, it doesn't seem all that different from the way things were when my brother and I were kids and we bought Jackson Five singles instead of LPs.

As I recall, we had quite a collection of those singles. But we collected them largely because we could afford them. In those days, we probably would have needed to save our allowances for four or five months to accumulate the money to pay for one album.

By comparison, a 45 rpm single only required about three or four weeks' allowance. You only got two songs (one on each side, except for those rare recordings that were one long song that started on the A side and concluded on the B side), and it was still a considerable exercise in discipline for a 7– or 8–year–old to save his allowance for a month. But it was simply unrealistic to think that a boy that age would resist the temptation to buy baseball or football cards or soft drinks or candy for five months just to buy a record, no matter how good the record was.

So today, as it was then, the focus is economic. But here's what has changed. Technological advancements have put more pressure on the artists and less on the consumers. When I was a child, the artists and the recording companies decided which songs would be released as singles. If a song you liked was not released as a single, the only way to get it was to buy the entire album. You couldn't download it — although you might be able to make a tape recording of a friend's copy if you had taping equipment. When I was collecting Jackson Five singles, most of the people I knew did not have taping equipment.

Today, consumers can buy the tracks they choose. They can download them from the internet and burn them onto homemade CDs in a matter of minutes. The choices are theirs. They are no longer at the mercy of the promoters and marketers representing recording companies.

There are a handful of (mostly deceased) performers whose bank accounts would unquestionably grow if recordings of any of their previously unreleased songs were discovered — even if those recordings turned out to be among the worst songs those performers ever recorded. If they were songs that Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley sang or the Beatles played but never released, their fans would line up days ahead of time to buy the CD without even hearing it.

For just about everyone else, though, the emphasis is on quality. Artists can't get away anymore with packaging CDs that have a couple of hot singles and a bunch of filler recordings to bulk them up.

But, to get back to Segal's premise, I think it's true that fame and success won't take the forms they did for Jackson and, no, we probably won't ever see another "Thriller." But that doesn't mean that someone of comparable stature won't come along.

The yardsticks for measuring fame are always changing. An album that spends months at the No. 1 spot on Billboard may not be possible anymore, but people often forget that seven of the nine songs on "Thriller" were released as singles — and all of them spent some time in the Top 10. I believe "Thriller" could still wield the kind of influence it did 25 years ago.

What we saw on our TV screens Thursday night was people reacting to the death of someone who connected with them as an artist. And people have always responded that way when someone who touched them dies. If that person dies at a young age, it is more painful — but it is still a sense of loss.

When Elvis died in 1977, I heard people wonder if we would ever again see the outpouring of grief that we saw then, but we did three years later, when John Lennon was killed. Again, I heard it said we would never see that kind of grief again, but we did, when Princess Di was killed.

Princess Di's public wake became the gold standard, I guess, although perhaps she doesn't belong in this group. She wasn't a recording artist, after all, but she did touch people's lives in a profound way. Anyway, the outpouring of grief over her death made people wonder if we would ever see that kind of global gloom for another deceased celebrity. And now, we have, following Michael Jackson's fatal cardiac arrest.

I think we'll see this kind of reaction when Paul McCartney dies (I'm not so sure about Ringo. That remains to be seen) and I think we might see this kind of reaction whenever Bruce Springsteen dies or whenever Bono dies. It's human nature. These men sang the songs that marked the milestones of many people's lives.

Those artists connected with their audiences. Sales are a tangible way of measuring someone's popularity, but they can't measure the intensity.

When McCartney dies, the public reaction may match or exceed Jackson's. (I have this image in my mind of folks at candlelight vigils singing "Yesterday," "Hey, Jude" and "Let It Be" in the hours after McCartney's death — while the talking heads on cable discuss his tumultuous marriage to Heather Mills.)

I'm not as sure of Springsteen or Bono, but I think they have the kinds of followings that will make it close.

I don't think Segal would buy that argument, mainly because those examples already have achieved a certain level of superstardom. Mostly, I think he writes about the up–and–coming artists. "[E]ven if nobody achieves album sales on a Jacksonian scale, couldn't he or she be an artist every bit as popular, every bit as loved, every bit as listened to?" Segal asks. "Probably not. The pop–idol field — like every field that can lead to super–fame — is more crowded than it has ever been, and the variety of routes to stardom keep growing."

I go along with that to a certain extent but not entirely. I think it relies too much on the bottom line, too much on commercial success to be an absolute. Jackson was an innovator as well as a performer. At a time when entertainment is evolving rapidly, being a good innovator is as important as being a good performer. Pioneers don't always enjoy the success their innovations bring to others, though. But some, like Jackson, enjoy a great deal of success.

There are a lot of things going on at the same time. And that reminds me of my very favorite line from "Forrest Gump" (I've heard these called "Gumpisms").
"I don't know if we each have a destiny, or if we're all just floating around accidental–like on a breeze, but I think maybe it's both. Maybe both is happening at the same time."

Part of what is going on is the ongoing contribution recording artists make to events in our lives — through songs you heard when you were in love for the first time or when you got married or when you had your first child or when you graduated from college. Or when a parent or a sibling died.

I've heard it called "the soundtrack of our lives" — sales and airplay can influence that, but I know that there have been times in my life that I have associated with songs that most people never heard of.

Maybe that is the result of what my pastor would call a "holy interruption" — when one may, in seemingly random fashion, hear a song that forever summarizes that moment, that time in a life. The deaths of most of the artists who sang those songs may not inspire the kind of global grief we have seen with Elvis and Princess Di and Michael Jackson, but, for the ones whose songs are linked to critical times in my life, I know I will feel their loss, just as I am sure that others will. There won't be as many of us, but the intensity of the loss will be just as great.

Segal frets that "our infinite menu of options" means the end of "true superstardom" and opines that Jackson's death — and the deaths of McMahon and Fawcett — "reminds us of how little in pop culture we currently share."

I don't think that is true. If Segal grieves the loss of a culture in which we all share the same experience, maybe that is a good thing. The artists who speak to us don't speak to us on group levels. They reach us as individuals and for reasons that are as unique as their listeners.

They represent, as Gus McCrae said in "Lonesome Dove," "the sunny slopes of long ago."

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