John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, and now at

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The man who never listened to Michael Jackson

Tell the Charlotte Observer that I’m ready for my interview.

The reason: A mention at Headsup (thanks, fev) of an article in that paper on the late Michael Jackson that included this passage:

Homer had the “Iliad,” Francis Ford Coppola had “The Godfather,” and Michael Jackson had “Thriller” – which is arguably the most influential album of all time and easily the most popular one in history.

It's nearly impossible to find someone over age 35 who didn't own the album at one time [emphasis added]. Since it was released Nov. 30, 1982, more than 50 million copies of “Thriller” have been sold worldwide.

Here I am, well past 35, without ever having owned a single Michael Jackson, song, album, or poster. I suppose I may have inadvertently heard something from Thriller over the years, but I was not conscious of it. I had no interest in his music when he was a cute little kid, and even less when he became a creepy adult. So for the past couple of days I have had to tune out the gush on Facebook, the newspaper, and the television.*

All right, journalists, here is your assignment and your challenge.

A famous person dies, a performer who has, for whatever reason, legions of devoted fans for whom this passing is a moment of intense emotion. You have to write about both the artist’s career and the impact on the fans, giving justice to each.

Your challenge is to do so without sounding like a fan. Skip references to the Iliad, unless you have some substantial reason to think that people will be listening to Thriller three thousand years hence. Turn away from superlatives and improbable assertions. Wildly improbable assertions. Get a grip.

The trick for a professional is to smuggle in the excess by direct quotation of fans’ emotional excess; then you are simply reporting, not endorsing.

*I don’t remember where I was when John Lennon died, either.


  1. What I find interesting is the media fascination with celebrity death. I realize we could say that this is just an extension of the celebrity cult that I personally dislike so much. But the volcanic eruption of solemn faces trying to create significant, memorable commentary is tiresome to the point of irritating.

    Three famous people died within a few days of each other. All three were iconic in some ways, and their deaths are certainly worth noting. We do, in our culture tend to recognize the accomplishments of people at the time of their death. And, I suppose, it's natural that we pause in the face of death to ponder the fraity of life

    But the simple truth is that a rather large number of difficult and tragic deaths happened in that same period of time. Deaths of people who were significant and maybe even a bit iconic in their own ways. I know this because I personally was present for several such deaths happening at the same time as the deaths of the famous. It strikes me that all this commentary on Ed and Farrah and Michael has less to do with the loss of their talents than it has to do with sensationalism - the desire to make a dollar. And that just makes me tired.

    I fully own...this is commentary, not reporting...

  2. I thought NPR did a decent job. In one segment they went around the world (literally) to get sound bites from fans in London, Nairobi, China, Brazil*, and so on. The fans did all the emoting (and singing), which effectively conveyed that Jackson was indeed a worldwide phenomenon. (One fan opined that Jackson was the most important phenomenon in the history of music, which was an excellent example of your recommendation to let the direct quotation convey the over-the-topness of the whole business.)

    Someone was recounting an interview in which a critic was asked who was bigger, Michael Jackson or the Beatles. It will take at least a generation to tell, of course, but the easy measure seems to be whether anyone else performs an artist's music. I've heard elevator music by Lennon-McCartney, but not (AFIAK) by Michael Jackson.

    Now, if we're talking about who has had more impact on the world of _dance_ ...

    * Cities and countries thrown together here willy-nilly, yes.

  3. No worries that you don't own a copy of "Thriller." I don't either and I am over 35.

    However, I have no problem with the Observer statements, either. I comfortably acknowledge the massive sales of "Thriller" (though I may wish to argue "most influential"). I think the article acknowledges the impact of Jackson without endorsing (or contradicting) it.

    P.S. I'm glad your blog has returned!

  4. the debate on facebook has been much more energetic... :)

  5. It's good to know that I'm able to accomplish repeatedly and easily that which is nearly impossible. I'm less than two years older than Mr. Jackson, and neither I nor any of my friends nor any of my or their younger siblings have ever owned a Michael Jackson album, eight-track, cassette, or CD.

    Along with our disdain for his music we felt a deep pity for a person who was literally not comfortable in his own skin — and this is a case where "literally" is perhaps a stretch, but not a hyperbole.

    I suspect the Onion came closest to explaining why his fans and certain media are shocked to hear that a troubled, reclusive 50-year-old has died, possibly of cardiac arrest. The Onion's headline was "King of Pop Dead at 12."

    To his fans and those media, Michael Jackson might have been frozen in time at 12 years of age.

  6. I, too, never owned a copy of Michael Jackson's songs or music videos BUT attesting to the world wide influence he had, in 1984 I was sitting in a small restaurant in a city in Eastern Turkey when the music video of "Thriller" came on the TV, put on by the owners because that (and maybe some Frank Sinatra songs) was the only "American" thing they could play to "honor" their American guests.

    Retired in Elkridge

  7. I don't remember where I was when Lennon died, either, and I did own a lot of Beatles albums. But I remember exactly where I was when John F. Kennedy was killed.

  8. Patricia the TerseJuly 3, 2009 at 2:08 AM

    I wouldn't buy Mr Jackson's products at gunpoint. So there. Some Asst Prof of Urban Studies somewhere, dragged in to comment on Mr Jackson (when he isn't commenting on other topics on which he knows nothing), declared Jackson the "greatest entertainer in human history." Thank heavens someone has taken the onus off of real perfomers.