With Michael Jackson, the end of the megastar?

Media fragmentation – and a public that's seen it all – makes it harder for today's artists to achieve global superstardom.

Mario Anzuoni/Reuters
Jermaine Jackson performed during the memorial service for his brother Michael Jackson in Los Angeles Tuesday.

Can there ever again be a megastar the size of Michael Jackson?

Nowadays, it's rare for a pop-culture icon to unite the world's divided attention. The globe's communal moments have come, instead, from times of disaster – the 9/11 terrorist attacks or the 2004 tsunami. Yet for several hours on Tuesday, TVs and computers from Tokyo to Tel Aviv were tuned in to the Michael Jackson memorial service in Los Angeles.

That Jackson could command such an audience is testament to the kind globe-straddling star power that was possible in an earlier, simpler entertainment age. Amid today's fragmented popular culture, in which an unlimited buffet of mass media has segregated consumers into niche-oriented tribes, Jackson was arguably one of the world's last superstars.

"It isn't just that Michael Jackson was the last superstar because he was one of the last people to benefit from an unfragmented media," says Timothy Burke, a cultural historian at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. "He may also have been one of the last people who could surprise us with a stunning innovation where we didn't have that sense already of being so jaded by the ubiquity of spectacularly good entertainment. That someone could just leap on the stage and do this thing, and you could go, 'Wow, I've never seen that before!' "

A star is born – via old media

Jackson became a star during a precocious appearance with The Jackson 5 on "The Ed Sullivan Show." It was 1969, and that one show could be the launchpad for a career: The Beatles' 1964 appearance, for example, was seen by 73 million viewers.

"He's one year younger than me, so I remember when he came on [his] first 'Ed Sullivan Show' with Diana Ross," says Mark Ferguson, who won a lottery ticket to the memorial service. "I grew up with it."

In those pre-Internet days, when music labels held the keys to distribution and budgeted millions of dollars for promotion, the primary struggle for any artist was to secure a record deal. Anyone fortunate enough to clear that hurdle had a shot at winning over a gargantuan audience that was collectively tuned in to FM radio. Jackson went one step further. He capitalized on the emergence of MTV at a time when cable hadn't yet ballooned into the 1,000-channel behemoth it is today. With his fedora tilted at a steep gradient and white socks glaring from beneath too-short jeans, the star's image-defining music videos were embraced by the 1980s teenagers who adopted the channel as an ersatz counterculture. In 1983, MTV captured a ratings share of 10 – an astonishing figure for a cable outfit in those days – whenever it aired the video for "Thriller."

To date, Jackson has notched an estimated 750 million album sales worldwide, with at least 28 million units for "Thriller" in the US alone.

No apparent heirs

That's why the King of Pop has no apparent heirs, though there are many pretenders to the throne – Akon, Justin Timberlake, and Usher, to name a few. Each of those stars is successful in his own right. But none is a global, epoch-defining icon whose tunes even your grandmother can hum. In an era in which listeners can find songs by hundreds of thousands of artists on iTunes, it's a rarity for any artist or band to sell upward of 1 million copies in the US. Last year's top-selling record, Lil Wayne's "Tha Carter III," shifted a mere 2.8 million copies.

At Tuesday's service, Jackson's pallbearers – each wearing sequined gloves – positioned the superstar center stage one last time.

"I doubt that there will ever, ever be anyone of that magnitude," says Gina Prudhomme, an Angeleno who attended the memorial. "I don't know Madonna's music. I don't know U2's music. But his music, everybody knew – black, white, Asian, African, Russian. There will never be anyone who can transcend countries and cultures the way he did."


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