Reactions to Michael Jackson's Death Highlight a Generation Gap

A glimpse into Michael Jackson's more than 40-year career, from the height of musical stardom to his bizarre personal life and sex scandal.
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 29, 2009

LOS ANGELES, June 28 -- Squinting at the crowds lining up on Sunday to view Michael Jackson's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, 15-year-old Olivia Holiman had a simple reaction: "What's the big deal?"

The teenager knows Jackson died suddenly on Thursday at age 50, and she certainly knows who Jackson was. Sort of. But her memory of the pop superstar is distinctly different from that of her father, Gary, who fondly remembers Jackson from his days as a child star with the Jackson 5.

"I wasn't really into his music, and neither are my friends," said the teenager. "He didn't seem like that great of a person."

Did this happen when Elvis or John Lennon died? Despite the media's nonstop coverage of Jackson's mysterious death, was there a huge generational shrug of the shoulders then, as there seems to be now?

Jackson was certainly famous enough to be part of the consciousness of younger people, but not really for his music or videos. For most of this decade, and parts of the last one, Jackson was a towering tabloid freak, hopscotching from one weird incident to the next. From the first allegations of child molestation in 1993, Jackson's behavior -- his legal and financial troubles, his face-distorting surgeries, his marriages and his 2005 trial on criminal molestation charges -- long ago overshadowed his contributions to music.

Not only has Jackson grown "old" by the standards of pop music stardom, but his musical output in recent years has been slight. "Invincible," his last album of original material, was released in 2001, which means he has missed the years in which teenagers like Holiman form their musical loyalties.

Which means that anyone born much after, say, 1982, the year "Thriller" was released, might not view Jackson as someone worth celebrating. Or remembering kindly.

"For me, [his life] is more like the [tabloid] media picture of him," said Paivi Mikkolainen, a 26-year-old bank employee from Lahti, Finland. "I cannot remember the '80s, so that is all I have." Instead of bopping to some of Jackson's recordings and videos, she said she spent some of her formative years listening to the Spice Girls.

"He is more like a news celebrity to me" than a musician, chimed in Mikkolainen's companion, Tuomo Jarvinen, a 28-year-old baker. "I will not dispute that he was famous, but we know him for many things, not music. He lived a very colorful life."

The couple stood in the courtyard of Grauman's Chinese Theatre, a hardscape of the ephemerality of fame. At their feet lay the handprints and footprints of vanished movie stars whose names are barely heard today. Deanna Durbin? Diana Wynyard? Jane Withers?

With the sun shining brightly, hundreds still lined up along the barricaded sidewalk to walk over Jackson's star and view the growing pile of trinkets, posters and moldering flowers left in his name.

Some people, most of them young, wondered why.

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