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Quite the World, Isn't It?

A few thoughts on Michael Jackson and new media

By now you all know Michael Jackson died yesterday, seemingly of a heart attack. There's a ton of coverage out there, some very solid (check out my friend Ann Powers' lovely tribute at the LA Times) and some pretty bizarre, such as the fan who told KABC-7 here in Los Angeles that the death was "life-changing." Well, yeah, in a binary, lights on/lights off kind of way.

A few things jump out at me. Jackson was a powerfully talented singer, songwriter and entertainer, with a shrewd sense of media manipulation and an admirable ability to break down barriers. He was also a tragic figure with a suspicious devotion to children that eventually overwhelmed his standing as a pop music icon (to most of the public, at least).

But I quibble with the hyperbole about his influence on pop music. Pop culture, definitely. Pop music, not as much. Most of Jackson's influence was in a specific cul de sac in pop music, the hit-hunting R&B neighborhood. He built on the creativity of predecessors like James Brown and wisely put himself in Quincy Jones' hands, but while he was toe-dancing and twirling and bringing old R&B showmanship on tour and to MTV, punk visionaries and the hip-hop generation emerged and radically transformed popular music. Against that backdrop, Jackson was less revolutionary than evolutionary.

Part of any major breaking news story is the media covering the media, including this bit from Robert Niles at the Online Journalism Review. Okay, so here goes an assessment of the assessment. Niles points out that people who use Twitter were tweeting away about the death long before it had been confirmed anywhere outside TMZ, which apparently got the scoop (and a hearty congrats to them). Ignoring the point that the tweets were, in effect, lightning-fast gossip, Niles argues media outlets should drop their use of email alerts about major news events because they make the outlets seem "clueless and slow."

Maybe, but only to the folks who rely on tweets for their news. And this strikes at one of the flawed undercurrents of a lot of media analysis right now -- it focuses on the technology more than the message. Twitter is still a new and growing social network with some intriguing potential for use (and abuse). But it is hardly pervasive. I have an account but don't receive tweets because I don't use text-messaging. The vast majority of people in this country don't use Twitter. In this eternal rush to the new we tend to forget about the established. Even with the startling decline of newspapers, outlets like my former employer, the LA Times, still sell hundreds of thousands of printed copies a day.

We can't forsake the old just because there's new. What's emerging aren't full replacements for newspapers but added avenues of information distribution (with some serious economic consequences, to be sure). Radio didn't kill newspapers, TV didn't kill radio and the Internet and Twitter aren't going to be murderous entities either. Like Jackson, they're more evolutionary than revolutionary. With all due respect to Marshall McLuhan, the message is the message.
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