Outpouring over Michael Jackson unlike anything since Princess Di
Nostalgia for a musical prodigy seemed to trump the pop star's dark side, as albums sold out and fans swamped social media with tributes.
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The 24-hour news cycle and social media are probably amplifying the reaction. But the response seems genuinely broad and intense – which may be surprising given the pop star's transformation into something of a bizarre and controversial recluse in his last 20 years.
If the death of a pop star was to be measured by tweets alone, Michael Jackson's would seem to be of monumental importance. About 15 percent of Twitter posts mentioned Jackson when the news broke Thursday evening, noted Harvard researcher Ethan Zuckerman in one tweet, comparing that with hot topics such as Iran and swine flu that never crossed 5 percent.
By Friday afternoon, 9 of the top 10 albums selling on iTunes were Michael Jackson's, Amazon.com had sold out all his CDs, and major retailers coast to coast were running out of his music. Online, Facebook and news websites were swamped with tributes. And Fans gathered across the world, from a mass moonwalk in London to tributes on the Walk of Fame in Los Angeles to vigils in Paris and Tokyo.
The overriding reason is his extraordinary musical influence.
"The reason you are seeing this global outpouring of interest is that Michael Jackson is singular in the history of pop culture. No one even comes close," says Professor James Peterson at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa., who teaches hip-hop culture, African-American literature, and sociolinguistics. Mr. Peterson points out that Jackson's achievement of 750 million in global album sales will never again be equaled because of the absolute change in the music business caused by the Internet.
Besides having had a dramatic influence on such artists as Usher, Chris Brown, and Justin Timberlake, Jackson "at once captures and encapsulates the history of blacks in dance. Any number of popular artists could not exist at the level they have without Michael Jackson," says Mr. Peterson.
For some, Jackson's body of work may trump all the other questionable aspects of his lifestyle – the child molestation charges, facial alteration, and reclusiveness.
"There have been at least three generations of listeners – one for each of his musical incarnations," Peterson notes, adding that he has a 10-year-old son who is now getting immersed in Jackson watching Peterson and his wife in mourning. "A fourth generation of followers is going to emerge because of this," he says.
Jackson was also one of the few musicians to transcend narrow ideas about how a black man should look and act and reach a global audience, says Professor Jeff Melnick, who teaches African American studies and popular culture at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass.