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 jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

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.